Recognized as one of the most influential women in the modern civil rights movement is Dorothy Irene Height. The New York Times describes her as an unsung heroine who led African-American and women’s rights movements.
For forty years, Height led the National Council of Negro Women as the president, addressing the rights of both women and African Americans. In the 1990s, she was able to bring in young people to help her fight the war against drugs, illiteracy, and unemployment.
According to her life account, while in high school, Height became socially and politically active, participating in anti-lynching campaigns. Height was an orator and that skill got her into a national oratory competition. She won and was awarded a college scholarship.
Height reportedly applied to and was accepted to Barnard College in New York, but the college changed its mind about her admittance, saying it had already met its quota for black students. She went on to apply to New York University, where she would earn a bachelor’s degree in education in 1930, and a master’s degree in psychology in 1932.
She worked as a social worker with the New York City Welfare Department until she joined the staff of the Harlem Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) in 1937 where she met Mary McLeod Bethune, educator and the founder of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Height volunteered with the NCNW. Bethune became her friend and mentor.
Height was able to direct the integration of the YWCA centers in 1946. She also established its Center for Racial Justice in 1965 and ran it until 1977. Height became the president of the NCNW in 1957, becoming one of the leading figures of the civil rights movement.
Height encouraged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to desegregate schools and President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint African-American women to positions in government, according to her biography
She worked with Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, John Lewis and James Farmer called the “Big Six” of the civil rights movement on different campaigns and initiatives.
She is said to be one of King’s trusted allies and confidants who worked with him to promote civil rights and equality. Height attended rallies with King and used her training as a social worker to reach out to families who were dealing with discrimination.
Height was one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington. She stood close to King when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1971, she helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm.
Height later retired from the YWCA in 1977 but still run the NCNW for twenty years. In 1986, as part of her projects focused on strengthening the African American family, Height organized the first Black Family Reunion, a celebration of traditions and values which is still held yearly.
In 1952, Height served as a visiting professor at the University of Delhi, India. She was involved in the Women’s Federation of the World Council of Churches. She also worked with the Black Women’s Federation of South Africa in 1977.
President Ronald Reagan presented her with the Citizens’ Medal Award for distinguished service in 1989. She also got the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and has won over twenty-four honorary degrees.
The New York Times Book Review called her memoir, “Open Wide the Freedom Gates” (PublicAffairs, 2003; with a foreword by Maya Angelou), “a poignant short course in a century of African-American history.”
On March 24, 2004, Height was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, joining the likes of George Washington, the first recipient of the Medal in 1776, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II and Rosa Parks.
Height was inducted into the Democracy Hall of Fame International on the Capitol Hill Campus of the National Graduate University in Washington, D.C. on September 7, 2004.
She was accorded a place of honor on the dais on January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama took the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States. In a statement, he called Height “the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans.”
Height never married. She died in August 2010, aged 98 and was the NCNW president emerita at her death.