A Woman to Know: Dorothy Height

I want to be remembered as one who tried. — Dorothy Height

I want to be remembered as one who tried. — Dorothy Height

(image via Library of Congress)

President Barack Obama called her “the godmother of the civil rights movement.” Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and others approached her for advice on political organization. She served as president of the National Council of Negro Women for a record 40 years.

But before the praise and accolades, Dorothy was an 18-year-old honors student applying to college. In 1929, she received multiple acceptances to top-tier schools, but also numerous rejections; while she met the criteria and excelled in every qualification for admission, many colleges had to turn her down because their policies didn’t yet allow for Black women to attend (years later, she’d receive more than 24 honorary degrees from lauded institutions).

She ultimately studied psychology at New York University, later working as a social worker with the Harlem YWCA. Her years in local outreach later informed her work in the civil rights movement, and Dorothy led the way for all YWCA branches to integrate their facilities.

In 1937, a meeting with civil rights legend Mary McLeod Bethune forever changed her life. As she later wrote:

She drew me into her dazzling orbit of people in power and people in poverty. ‘The freedom gates are half ajar,’ she said. ‘We must pry them fully open.’ I have been committed to the calling ever since.

Mary dove into the work Bethune inspired, turning her attention to mobilizing Black women. As the president of the National Council of Negro Women, she assisted in organizing 1963’s legendary March on Washington and encouraged white women to march alongside Black women. Later in life, she continued consulting presidents and high-level politicians on how to broker change-making conversations about equity in the United States.

As President Obama said upon her death in 2010:

We remember her not solely for all she did during the civil rights movement. We remember her for all she did over a lifetime, behind the scenes, to broaden the movement's reach, to shine a light on stable families and tight-knit communities, to make us see the drive for civil rights and women's rights not as a separate struggle, but as part of a larger movement to secure the rights of all humanity, regardless of gender, regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity.


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