Height's legacy: An unsung rights pioneer finally gets her due

Written by Susan Mannella on .

When she died last week at 98, Dorothy Irene Height wasn't a household name. Yet few of the celebrated figures in civil rights history or the women's rights movement accomplished as much as Ms. Height in her decades as an activist.

Born in Richmond, Va., but raised in Rankin, Pa., Ms. Height's academic training was in social work, but her life experience marked her as a champion of the downtrodden of all sexes and races.

Early on, she understood the connection between institutions that oppressed her because she was African-American and those that marginalized her because she was a woman. She strove to overcome whatever barrier she encountered by teaching others to do likewise.

Because she was a maverick, she became an ally of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and a protégé of Mary McLeod Bethune. Ms. Height led the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1997. Although Ms. Bethune founded the organization, Ms. Height was its greatest and longest-serving leader.

Ms. Height was often treated shabbily by male colleagues in the civil rights movement. She was an accomplished orator but did not speak at the 1963 March on Washington, even though she helped organize it. Incredibly, no black woman spoke at the historic rally.

Ms. Height had her problems with white feminist leaders, too, but she is dutifully credited with helping to found the National Women's Political Caucus with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisolm in 1971.

Her roots as an activist stretch back to Pittsburgh, where she first agitated to integrate the swimming pool of the Rankin Christian Center. That local effort, begun when she was 11, spawned a national drive to desegregate the YWCA nationwide years later.

This tells only part of the story of this great woman's activism. President Barack Obama called her the "godmother of the civil rights movement," but she was more like its conscience. She didn't always get the credit she deserved, but she left a legacy few can ever surpass.


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