Half A Century's Fight for Freedom: The Lasting Career of Dorothy Height
Dorothy Height was born on March 24, 1912 in Richmond, Virginia. Her family moved to Rankin Pennsylvania where she excelled in school and earned a scholarship to go to College. She was admitted to Barnard College but was unable to attend because she was African American. Instead, Height attended New York University where she earned both her Bachelors in Education and Masters in Educational Psychology in just four years. She continued her education by doing postgraduate work at Columbia University and the New York School of Social Work.
Her first position was working with the New York City Welfare Department in Harlem. She also became involved with the Harlem YWCA and pushed for more diverse programming and integration of facilities nationwide. In 1937 she met activist and organizer Mary McLeod Bethune. At the time, Bethune was president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Height became involved in the NCNW at the age of 25 and her foray into activism began. Because Mary McLeod Bethune became Height’s mentor, Height eventually succeeded her as president of the organization after Bethune’s death in 1955.
Height served as president of NCNW for 40 years, from 1957-1997. Her presidency ran through the heat of the Civil Rights Movement and gave her the platform to implement social programs that would impact the lives of African Americans, especially in the south. She was also instrumental in pushing women’s rights as a part of the larger Civil Rights Movements, in recognition of the struggles of Black Women that were historically left out of the movement. She focused these intersectional efforts on political mobilization for Black women often acting as a mediator between Black and White female activist.
Her mediation and efforts for female inclusion are most notably seen in her organizing of the March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Height was one of the few female chief organizers in the iconic event. She pushed for women to be included in speaking roles at the March, which originally had no women on the program. Height herself, although highly involved in the execution of the event, was not asked to speak. She was, however, seated on the stage as MLK gave his famous, “I Have a Dream Speech.”
Throughout her Civil Rights career Height was sought out for her organizational skills and wisdom by high ranking political figures like Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1965 she became the first director of the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice. In 1971 she joined activist powerhouses Shirley Chisholm, Betty Fredian, and Gloria Steinem to form the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Height also received awards at every step of her nearly half a century long career. In 1944 she was awarded the Freedom from Want Award by President FDR; in 1989 she was awarded the Citizens’ Medal Award for distinguished service by President Reagan, and in 2000 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George Bush. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of fame and awarded the John F. Kennedy Memorial Award along with many other accolades. Dorothy Irene Height passed away in 2010 at the age of 98. In 2017, the U.S. Postal service unveiled the Dorothy Height Forever Stamp as a part of their Black Heritage Collection.