Dorothy Height, the grande dame of the civil rights movement, died recently in Washington after a long illness. She was 98.
Miss Height, as everyone called her, was a force in the black civil rights movement for 60 years, 40 of them as the president of National Council of Negro Women.
In life and in death, she has been called the matriarch and the queen of the movement. President Barack Obama called her its "godmother." The titles are reverential. She was a tall, stately woman, always perfectly dressed, her voice moderated and mannered. Style was and is an important element in the lives of upwardly moving African Americans — it shows that we can be cultured, too.
But behind the image of the grand lady was a woman who was a very active strategist and organizer. That balance, between the mannered lady and the activist, would play out for her entire professional life and says much about the still too-often hidden role of black women in the movement.
Many of the articles that immediately followed the announcement of her passing noted that she sat on the dais at the most famous moment in civil rights history, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Indeed, Mrs. Height was among the small group of top African-American leaders who strategized and organized the movement into an internationally recognized force, and she was on the dais that day — but she did not speak.
Miss Height was quoted widely as saying that Reverend King spoke longer than expected. She was a particularly gracious woman, and the quote was her way of saying a truth while shielding one of the harsher realities of the movement. She said later that she was disappointed that no one had advocated for women's rights. She would have, had she spoken. There were many that day who did not want her, or any other woman, to speak to the crowd.
Obtaining full manhood status for black men was a focus of the civil rights movement, which meant that black women were often expected to put themselves in the back seat — and historically, African-American women have pushed concerns about race ahead of those about gender. Miss Height constantly reminded them that they had to do both. "Dorothy Height deserves credit for helping black women understand that you had to be feminist at the same time you were African," said Washington, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Indeed, Miss Height's work to improve conditions for women predated the modern women's rights movement. The YWCA was important to the work of black women activists and Miss Height worked with Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the Harlem YWCA, where Miss Height had first met Eleanor Roosevelt, then moved to direct the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA branch in Washington. Before becoming the fourth president of the National Council of Negro Women, she was the president of Delta Sigma Theta from 1947 to 1955. Although the black sororities held teas and debutante balls, they also built formidable histories as agents of service and change. As black women pushed for the right to be ladies, they also worked hard behind the scenes.
Miss Height continued to lobby Eleanor Roosevelt — a pivotal figure in the ability of black concerns to reach the president's office. One of Miss Height's favorite programs was "Wednesdays in Mississippi," which had the sound of a ladies' afternoon garden tour but consisted of weekly trips by interracial groups to Mississippi in the 1960s to register voters and help in the Freedom Schools. It was dangerous work. She also started a decidedly unglamorous pig bank, donating pigs to poor families who, in turn, gave back two piglets for donations to other families. Later, she would forge alliances with white feminists.
When she announced her retirement in 1997, Rep. John Lewis said, "At every major effort for social progressive change, Dorothy Height has been there." She would often say, "If the times aren't ripe, you have to ripen the times," a statement that coveys the power and the strategy of a woman central to the better country we have now.
Sheri L. Parks is an associate professor and co-director of graduate studies in the American Studies Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of "Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture." Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.