Remembering Dorothy Height, Heroine of the Civil Rights Era

Dorothy Height, whom President Obama called “the godmother of the civil rights movement,” died on April 20 at age 98. Her energetic yet gentle character and devotion to civil rights for all were evident in her career that spanned several generations. As the longest-serving president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), she oversaw programs to expand voting rights and relieve poverty. She was a leader in the women’s rights movement as well.

Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1912, Height grew up in Pennsylvania. As a teenager, she won a national speech contest in which she was the only black contestant, earning a $1,000 scholarship. She attended New York University, attaining a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in psychology. She began her career in social work with the New York City Welfare Department. Long before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Height was involved in the cause. As an executive with the Young Women’s Christian Association in the 1940s, she led the push to integrate the YWCA’s facilities nationwide.

As NCNW’s president, Height helped organize voter education in the North and voter registration in the South. Because of her belief in the importance of strong communities, in the mid-1980s Height inaugurated a series of “Black Family Reunions” to celebrate the history, culture, and traditions of African Americans. Women’s groups dominated by white women and African American groups led by black men both failed at times to make room for her gifts of leadership. Next to such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, and others, Height was often unheralded.

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