By SHERYL CANNADY
A veteran of the civil rights movement told her story of America in the mid-20th century—a story of two nations, one white and one black, separate and unequal—during the Library's celebration of African American History Month.
Dorothy Height, nearly 92, was at the core of the last century's civil rights movement that grew out of an environment of racial inequality. A preeminent social and civil rights advocate, Height battled the vestiges of racism and sexism for more than 60 years. She memorialized the history she has seen and made in her recently published book, "Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir," and she shared her historical remembrances at the Library on Feb. 24.
Height has worked on five continents for four major national organizations during her tenure as one of black America's most prominent civil rights activists.
"I found my life's work," she told the large audience that crowded into the Mumford Room to hear her speak. "I have been in the proximity of, and threatened by, the Klan; I have been called everything people of color are called; I have been denied admission because of a quota. I've had all of that, but I've also learned that getting bitter is not the way."
Height's vision has shaped the direction of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), first as president of the organization for 40 years and then as the organization's president emerita and chairman.
One of black America's most respected figures, Height said she does not frame her "life by personal aspirations."
"I don't compete with other people. I compete with Dorothy Height," she said. "I come out of a profession where I am accustomed to thinking ‘we.'" However, one of Height's universally recognized crowning achievements is NCNW ownership of the building that houses its headquarters at 633 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., the site of the central slave market. Height raised the funds to pay off the mortgage on this first black-owned building in downtown Washington, D.C.
Those attending the African American History Month program were treated to a film titled "The Life and Surprising Times of Dorothy Height," which set the stage for her presentation. The film described Height's origins as a bright student who lost a coveted spot at Barnard College in New York City because of the school's quota system of two blacks per class; her extraordinary cultural experience living in New York during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s, and a life-altering meeting with educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, who taught her the lessons of power and leadership. One little-known fact revealed in the film was that Height was instrumental in setting the stage for Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington in August 1963.
Height entered the room in a wheelchair, wearing her trademark hat and signature pearls. However, the wheelchair was the only sign that nine decades had passed as Height radiated a regal strength and sharp intellect to an applauding crowd.
"Dr. Height is definitely a Renaissance woman," said Richard Barnes, Information Technology Services. "Her mere presence in a room demands your undivided attention—that feeling you get when you are aware of greatness. We love her."
Height was born in Richmond, Va., in 1912, but grew up in Rankin, Pa. "I realize what it would be like if we all had our education in situations where diversity was real, because I have never been a student in a segregated class; but I also know what it meant to live and be a small unit within a total community," she said. An exceptional orator in school, Height entered a speech contest in which she tackled the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. "I'm still working on the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments," she quipped.
Challenged by her mother to be the best, Height's life changed when she crossed paths in November 1937 with the women who would become two of her greatest mentors— Eleanor Roosevelt and Bethune, then president of the National Council of Negro Women. The 25-year-old Height, who worked at the YMCA at the time, was assigned to escort the first lady during an NCNW meeting. "Mrs. Bethune said to me, "Come back, we need you." She laughingly told the audience, "I came back and I've been back ever since."
Height remembered that one of the first resolutions she had written
as a fledgling activist dealt with child labor and the minimum wage.
Following her remarks, which were punctuated with laughter and continual applause, Height was asked questions ranging from the name of her favorite spiritual to her position on reparations, prompting the following responses.
"The civil rights movement was in reality an effort, a drive, a revolutionary movement to change the system under which we live, and we have to give the credit to Dr. Martin Luther King, because he was not assassinated because he was a dreamer, he was assassinated because he dared to change the system. ... With his leadership we achieved the Civil Rights Act of ‘64, the Voting Rights Act of ‘65. If we had sustained the climate that we had after the March on Washington, and if we had sustained our dream and our efforts and we had seen ourselves more as drum majors for justice, I think we would have been further ahead."
Direction of Democracy
"It is my feeling that if the United States of America makes its democracy strong, we will be such an example to the world [that] I think the world will change. And I don't think that we can make much democracy elsewhere without strengthening this democracy at home."
"We use words like diversity, but that can be a very good cover-over. It is how people relate to one another that makes the difference. If we don't acknowledge that racism still exists, if we don't acknowledge that sexism still exists, we will never be able to eliminate them. We will have to make diversity more than a slogan. You have to have a genuine appreciation for people who are different."
"Racism is not prejudice; it is not bigotry; it is not discrimination. Racism is institutionalized prejudice; it is in the system. When today we are talking about reparations we are talking about how this country recognizes that the free labor that came through slavery helped build this country, that this country could not be this strong without what it did. There should be some way of recognizing how the institution of slavery made the institution of racism so deeply imbedded in our psyche and in our country and that somehow we need to think of reparations with a new vision and a new view and think of it in terms of justice long overdue."
Maya Angelou has described Dorothy Height as "one of the giants among mighty women." Former ambassador Andrew Young described her as "walking history," and Coretta Scott King called her an "eloquent voice for justice and human decency."
Height received the Congressional Gold Medal in the Library's Great Hall on March 24, her 92nd birthday.
Sheryl Cannady is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.