Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dorothy Height: The major seventh

Dorothy Height died early on Tuesday, at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., at the age of 98. The fact that most Americans won’t recognize the name of one of the more unsung but more influential figures of American social activism and the civil rights movement speaks volumes about the cult of personality, and the ways American culture and black history play favorites by gender.

When she passed Tuesday, Height was the last link between the social change of the New Deal era and that of the tumultuous civil rights era of the 1960’s. An eloquent and illuminating speaker, the personification of elegance and a milliner’s dream — sister wore hats like nobody’s business — Height brought breadth to the strategies of the civil rights movement, and helped set the table for the social changes that culminated in the presidency of Barack Obama.

As active in women’s and workers rights as she was in the civil rights arena, Height was believed to be the first to unify the drive for social justice in a way that sought to dissolve the artificial distinctions between the separate but not quite equal pursuits of life, liberty and happiness.

Born in Virginia in 1912, Height was an impressive student and speaker from the beginning, excelling in high school and ultimately receiving a scholarship to Barnard College. That’s when her intelligence and adaptability came to the fore. Rejected at Barnard despite her scholarship because of the college’s ridiculous two-blacks-at-a-time rule, Height took the subway downtown to New York University in 1929. Carrying her acceptance letter to Barnard, Height petitioned for admission — what you wouldn’t give for a transcript of that oration! — and was accepted almost immediately.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in education at NYU in 1933, and a master’s degree in psychology two years later.

In a variety of roles — as a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department; assistant executive director of the Harlem Y.W.C.A.; founder of, and for 12 years director of, the Y’s Center for Racial Justice; co-founder of the National Political Women’s Caucus; and for 40 years the president of the National Council of Negro Women — Height spoke to truth to power, agitating on behalf of civil rights as a fact of life for Americans, regardless of race, color, creed, or gender.

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It’s one of the lesser known but unavoidable facts of the civil rights movement: that despite the rhetorically egalitarian boilerplate of its leaders and its mission, the civil rights movement was shot through with a sexism — by turns genteel and passive-aggressive — that was a consequence of gender roles and conventions defined within the black community for generations.

You can’t help but notice that in the thunderous closing moments of Rev, Martin Luther King’s signature oration at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, King called for hastening “that day when all of God's children, black men and white men” would join hands in freedom.

In her Tuesday obituary, Margalit Fox of The New York Times grasped the deeper historical distinctions:
Over the years, historians have made much of the so-called “Big Six” who led the civil rights movement: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney M. Young Jr. Ms. Height, the only woman to work regularly alongside them on projects of national significance, was very much the unheralded seventh, the leader who was cropped out, figuratively and often literally, of images of the era.

In 1963, for instance, Ms. Height sat on the platform an arm’s length from Dr. King as he delivered his epochal “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. She was one of the march’s chief organizers and a prize-winning orator herself. Yet she was not asked to speak, although many other black leaders — all men — addressed the crowd that day.
Height helped accelerate the erosion of that gender-based barrier in American society — a process that goes on today but one that’d be much longer without her presence on the scene.

At the end of his groundbreaking family history “Roots,” the scholar and author Alex Haley observed that “preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners.”

History written by the winners? We can debate that all day. But in a life of service to those who couldn’t recognize her name on a bet, Dorothy Height showed the ways history is often made by the people you never hear about.

Image credits: Height top: New York University. Height 1974: Associated Press. Height bottom: Associated Press.

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