Civil rights leader continues the fight


In her expansive Washington office in the turret of the champagne-colored, palace-like structure that once was the St. Marc Hotel, Dorothy I. Height - the 88-year-old woman who has been called the "grande dame" of the civil rights movement - describes racism not as a societal enemy that was defeated, but one that has evolved over time.

In the 1960s, when she fought side by side with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as the lone woman in the core group of civil rights leaders, the enemy was overt, she said: legal segregation that allowed water fountains and lunch counters to be color-coded and equal opportunity in employment and housing to be denied.

Today, racism is much more covert, she said - so much so that some people mistakenly believe it is no longer there. Struck from the law books, it manifests itself instead in the continuing disparities between blacks and whites in economics, education, housing and other areas.

"We broke down the barriers created by legal segregation," the longtime leader of the National Council of Negro Women said recently. "Now we have another battle: to let people have access to opportunities."

Height will bring this message to the Anne Arundel County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when she addresses the group's annual Freedom Fund Banquet on Friday. The theme of the event in Glen Burnie is "Remembering the Past, Restoring the Present, Reaching into the Future."

Gerald Stansbury, president of the NAACP branch, calls Height "an icon in our community."

"In a lot of ways, we are forgetting where we come from, we are getting away from our values," he said. "Dorothy Height brings back those values. She's an inspiration."

The focus of the civil rights struggle may have changed over time but, Height said, the battle for true equity may be even more challenging than fighting the sanctioned discrimination of the past.

"We have finished with most of the marches," said Height, who served as NCNW president from 1957 to 1998 and has remained the elected board chairwoman and president emerita of the organization, which reaches more than 4 million black women. "We now have the job of really bringing the benefits of legislation into the lives of people."

The rear wheels

She compares black people to the rear wheels of a car. When the car, or society, moves faster, so do the back wheels, but they don't catch up, she noted.

Because of that, she said, she is distressed by the recent backlash against affirmative action, with some white men charging discrimination and some politicians declaring such programs unnecessary.

Affirmative action "is simply a way of helping those who have been left out to get into the position to take advantage of some of the things we have worked to achieve," she said.

Height was born in Richmond, Va., on March 24, 1912 - eight years before women won the right to vote in this country. When she was age 4, she and her younger sister moved to Rankin, Pa., with their parents, James and Fannie Height, a building contractor and nurse. Valedictorian of her mostly white high school, Height won a $1,000 scholarship in an Elks Club oratory contest on the Constitution that enabled her to go to college. After being turned down by her first choice, Barnard College, because it had fulfilled its two-black quota of the time, she went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology from New York University in four years.

Remaining in New York, Height worked as a social worker before joining the Harlem YWCA as its assistant executive director in October 1937. A month later, she was chosen to escort first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to a meeting there with Mary McLeod Bethune, the daughter of slaves, who had founded the NCNW two years earlier. Bethune noticed Height as she was leaving the room.

'We need you'

"Mrs. Bethune asked me who I was," Height said, recalling the brief encounter that turned into one of the defining moments of her life. "She said, 'Come back. We need you.' I've been back ever since."

As she began volunteering at the NCNW, Height rose through the ranks at the YWCA, becoming a member of the organization's national board staff in 1944. In 1965, she inaugurated and became the director of the YWCA's Center for Racial Justice, a position she held until 1977, when she retired from the organization.

During that time, she also served for nine years as national president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority before being elected in 1957 the fourth president of NCNW.

Through that position she found herself at the center of the civil rights movement. An unabashed feminist, she said her role was often to focus on the women and girls in the movement, whose issues sometimes were overlooked in the fight for racial equality.

She points out that no women spoke at the March on Washington, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Women belonged to many of the organizations participating in the march, and Mahalia Jackson sang the national anthem, but "we were not able to convince the men" that a woman should share the podium, she said. That's an oversight that she said would "never happen again."

African-American women have since been recognized for their role at the center of the black family and the black community. And the NCNW, an umbrella group of 38 national affiliates and 250 community-based sections, has made its way to the center of Washington's power corridor. In 1995, the organization acquired the former hotel at 633 Pennsylvania Ave., becoming the first African-Americans to own a building between the Capitol and the White House, Height said. She calls it a position of pride.

"Every president inaugurated goes by our house," she said. "We belong on Pennsylvania Avenue."

'Last major project'

In March, the group launched a campaign to "burn the mortgage" of the building they acquired for $8 million, well below the $22 million original asking price, from Sears Roebuck and Co. They have raised $4 million, and Height hopes to raise at least that much more by the end of the year.

The Dorothy Height Legacy Initiative - which Height called her "last major project" - will not only fund the purchase of the building that will one day bear her name, but also establish an endowment to help the organization develop and fund its programs, such as the Dorothy Height Leadership Institute, nationwide Black Family Reunion Celebrations, AIDS awareness education in Africa and community awards programs.

A formidable figure who often works seven days a week, Height has not slowed down in her work at NCNW since turning the presidency over to the organization's first staff president, Jane E. Smith, former director of the Atlanta Project at the Carter Center.

"It is amazing," Smith said. "She is the queen mother. ... I am learning every day from her."

In her Washington office one recent afternoon, Height tries to conceal yawns after a morning of interviews in connection with the NAACP's voting drive. She wears a royal blue suit with matching hat and two strands of large, pale-pink pearls. Her broad cheeks, though thinning, are highlighted with rouge. Her elegant office is filled with decades worth of collectibles and honors, including 29 honorary degrees from institutions such as Harvard University, as well as Barnard. She does not talk about retirement.

"I will work as long as the Lord lets me live, but the idea is I don't want to leave this half done," she said about the capital campaign. That statement is also the mantra for her work.

"We have to remember that the gains we have today were hard fought and hard won and people gave their lives to bring us to this point," she said. "There is no point for turning back. We have to look ahead, but we have to act today.

"That is the way social change comes," she said. "You have to keep working. You can't give up."

The Anne Arundel County branch of the NAACP will hold its annual Freedom Fund Banquet at La Fontaine Bleu in Glen Burnie.

The Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr., pastor of New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore, will also speak at the event, where 27 Anne Arundel ministers and six community activists will be honored.

A social hour begins at 6 p.m. and the program at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35. Information: 410-451-2720.

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