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Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height

“Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes, but by the opposition he or she has overcome to reach his goals.”

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech to cap the March On Washington in the summer of 1963, only one woman stood onstage among the civil rights leaders and within an arm’s reach of Dr. King: Dorothy Height.

Although an accomplished speaker, educator, and civil rights and women’s rights activist, Height was not asked to speak at the historic march, thought by many to be the turning point in the civil rights movement.

She realized that, despite her best efforts, black women faced injustice and bigotry on two fronts: race and gender. Her male counterparts, she later said, “were happy to include women in the human family, but there was no question as to who headed the household.”

Elegant and equally eloquent, Height is considered a trailblazer who fought to treat sexism toward women and racism towards African Americans as separate but similarly disturbing problems in American society.

Her civil rights career lasted nearly 80 years, during which she served as the president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1997 and was a founding member of the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. She was also a consultant on African affairs to the Secretary of State, the President’s Committee on the Status of Women and the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped.

Born in Richmond, Virginia, Height moved with her family to a small town in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. She received a scholarship from the Elks and was admitted to Barnard College in New York in the 1920s. Upon her arrival at the school, however, she was denied entrance because of an unwritten school policy of admitting only two black students per year, and the school had already reached its quota.

Upset but undeterred, that same day Height took the subway from Barnard to New York University, where she enrolled. She earned a bachelor’s degree in education from NYU in 1930 and a master’s degree from NYU in psychology in 1932.

Decades later, Barnard College named Height an honorary alumna.

Height received numerous awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal presented by President George W. Bush in 1994 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. She also had the honor of being seated on stage at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama, who referred to Height as “the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many others.”

Height never married and had no children. She died in Washington, D.C., in 2010. Among the attendees at her funeral were Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.



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