March is National Women’s History Month. All month long we are celebrating by looking at some of the remarkable women throughout history who have made a huge difference in fundraising and humanitarian work.
In the previous posts in our series, we featured Eleanor Roosevelt, Madam C.J. Walker, and Anne Avantie. This time we will look at the life and activism of Dorothy Height, a major unsung hero of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
Early Civil Rights Activism
Height began working at the YWCA in Harlem in 1937. During her time in the area, she noticed that it was common in Brooklyn and the Bronx for white women from the suburbs to exploit local black women, hiring them to work for around 15 cents an hour. Among locals, the street corners where this took place became known as “slave markets.” Height testified before the New York City Council about this issue, and eventually raised enough publicity to drive the markets underground for a time.
Her activism did not stop there. In fact, she was just beginning her Civil Rights work. In 1946, Height presided over the integration of all nationwide YWCA facilities. After becoming acquainted with Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and Eleanor Roosevelt when they visited her YWCA facility, she began volunteering with the NCNW. Through her volunteer work, she eventually became the president of the NCNW in 1957. She held the position until 1997, managing a variety of programs related to poverty, voting rights, and the AIDS epidemic.
One job was never too much for Height. Despite taking on her role with the NCNW, she still found time to establish and run the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice from 1965 to 1977. She also, along with other activists such as Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan, co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.
Seventh Member of the “Big Six”
While the history books mainly focus on the work of noteworthy men when discussing the Civil Rights Movement, Dorothy Height worked closely with them all along. Her work with the NCNW and Center for Racial Justice brought her to the forefront of the movement, though she never received much recognition.
Height worked regularly with the group of men who would later become known as the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, John Lewis and James Farmer. She even took part in organizing the March on Washington in 1963, and stood nearby as Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream speech. However, along with her female peers, Height was not asked to speak at the event.
She later opened up about the subject: “I was there, and I felt at home in the group. But I didn’t feel I should elbow myself to the front when the press focused on the male leaders.”
Height went on to join the fight for women’s rights, and while she did take note of the disparity between men and women, she was not concerned with earning recognition for herself:
“You will accomplish a great deal if you do not worry about who will get the credit.”
Awards and Honors
Though Height may have taken a backseat to her male peers throughout most of her career, she did receive multiple honors later in life. In 1994, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. She also received another of the highest honors in the U.S., the Congressional Gold Medal, from President George W. Bush in 2004.
During her nearly 80 years of activism, Height made a lasting impression. President Barack Obama referred to Height as “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement,” honoring her with a special seat during his 2009 inauguration. According to Patricia Bath of the National Women’s History Project:
“She was someone who, if you were going to meet her, you just put on your sunscreen because you were going to bask in her brilliance.”
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The New York Times