Dorothy I. Height

(1912 - )

Speech delivered at the first Scholarly Conference on Black Women

Washington, D.C. - November 13, 1979

Dorothy I. Height

Dorothy Height was one of the most powerful women in the long civil rights struggle. Through her leadership in the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the National Council of Negro Women, along with countless other councils and committees, Height spent most of the 20th century fighting poverty, racism and sexism. Her work ranged from leading fair wage battles in the 1930s, to organizing voter registration drives in the 1960s, to initiating nationwide black family reunions in the 1980s and '90s. Height has pursued her ambitions with the vigor of a missionary, deeply believing that her duty as a Christian is to help people who suffer from discrimination and poverty.

Height was born in 1912 and raised in Rankin, Pennsylvania, a small steel town near Pittsburgh. Her father was a successful building contractor and painter, her mother a nurse and housekeeper. Her parents were marginally active in Republican politics, but as Height notes in her 2003 memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates, the major political parties had little to offer African Americans during a time when "lynching and unemployment were realities of everyday life." Rather, Height writes, "Negro Americans gained ground through the kind of self-help that had characterized our struggle since slavery – by creating our own organizations to meet our needs."1 According to Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr., Height epitomized the middle-class "club women" who ran these crucial organizations. "White-gloved, wearing hats and pearls, these women cut an exemplary, no-nonsense figure for the community. Through their organizations they could provide for the sick and the destitute, care for orphaned children, [and] establish beneficiary societies when no one else could."2

Height inherited the role of "club woman" from her mother, who belonged to the Pennsylvania Federation of Colored Women's Clubs and brought young Dorothy to every meeting. "There I saw women working, organizing, teaching themselves." What she observed left Height with a deep and lasting impression of how to get things done, as well as a profound sense of belonging. "Since those early days," she writes, "I've never doubted my place in the sisterhood."3

Height was a talented student and exemplary orator. She graduated from high school in 1929 and won a national public speaking contest that earned her a four-year scholarship to college. Height applied to Barnard College in New York but was turned away because the school had reached its quota of two black students per year. Instead, Height enrolled at New York University, where she earned a B.A. in three years. She used the fourth year of her scholarship to earn a master's degree in educational psychology.

Once out of school, Height took various jobs serving poor communities around New York City. During the dark years of the Depression, Height's skills as a savvy and effective organizer were much in demand. She was hired, at age 23, as a personnel supervisor in New York's Welfare Administration and soon found herself in charge of several thousand workers and an array of special projects. During this time, Height was also an active member of many different local and national youth councils. By 1937, she was an officer of the United Christian Youth Movement of North America, president of the New York State Christian Youth Council, chair of the Harlem Youth Council and an officer of the National Youth Congress.

Height recalls the 1930s as the most politically vibrant era of the 20th century for young people. "We really believed," she says, "that we were building a new world."4 Her goals were ambitious: "Laws to prevent lynching, the breakdown of segregation in the armed forces, free access to public accommodations, equal opportunity in education and employment, security for the aged and infirm, protection for children, reform of the criminal justice system, an end to bias and discrimination in housing, and recognition of women's rights," she writes. Height worked for decades to try to achieve these goals. Looking back, she wrote, "I was determined to make America worthy of her stated ideals."5

In the fall of 1937, when Height was 25, she met the most powerful black woman of the New Deal era, Mary McLeod Bethune. The daughter of former slaves, Bethune managed to get an education, start a college for African American women, and become an influential adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1935, Bethune launched the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). The new organization aimed to unite disparate black women's groups into one powerful entity devoted to ending racial and gender discrimination and improving the lives of black women and their families. Bethune was hosting a meeting of the NCNW at the Harlem YWCA, where Height had just taken a job. Bethune's friend, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, was on hand to address the group. Bethune noticed Height's poise and ability and recruited her on the spot to the NCNW.

The meeting changed Height's life. "On that fall day, the redoubtable Mary McLeod Bethune put her hand on me," Height recalls. "She drew me into her dazzling orbit of people in power and people in poverty. I remember how she made her fingers into a fist to illustrate for the women the significance of working together to eliminate injustice. 'The freedom gates are half ajar,' she said. 'We must pry them fully open.'"6

Height worked closely with Bethune for nearly two decades, helping to build the NCNW into "one of the most vocal and visible organizations advocating the rights of black women."7 In 1957, two years after her mentor died, Height was elected president of the organization. She served in that role until she retired in 1998. As of 2010, she remained chair and president emeritus of the NCNW.

As head of the NCNW, Height was the only woman chosen to serve on an elite committee of civil rights leaders formed in 1960. The group met on a regular basis in New York City to discuss issues in the movement and generate philanthropic support. Eventually calling itself the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, the group included Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins and A. Philip Randolph. Despite Height's inclusion in the "Big Six," as it became known, women were treated as junior members in the movement.

During the planning stage of the 1963 March on Washington, the male organizers refused to appoint a woman to speak at the massive rally. According to Height, organizer Bayard Rustin said that women were well represented in all the groups that would be attending the rally and therefore didn't need to have their own speaker. Height protested the decision, but lost. "I've never seen a more immovable force," Height recalled. "We could not get women's participation taken seriously."8 Height and her peers learned a crucial lesson: "If we did not demand our rights, we were not going to get them," she writes. After the March on Washington, Height says, "women became much more aware and much more aggressive in facing up to sexism in our dealings with the male leadership in the movement."9

Dorothy Height holds numerous honors and awards for her achievements. They include 36 honorary degrees from universities, ranging from Howard to Harvard, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which President Bill Clinton awarded her in 1994. A decade later, President George W. Bush presented Dorothy Height the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by the United States Congress. At the award ceremony, former labor secretary Alexis Herman observed that Height can often been seen in historic civil rights photographs, standing alongside icons like Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and the activist John Lewis. When Height was asked why she appears in so many of these images, Height said "I learned to stand in the center so I wouldn't be elbowed out of the picture."10

Height gave this speech at a 1979 symposium on the legacy of the NCNW. She recounts the organization's achievements under her leadership, and argues that women formed the backbone of the civil rights movement even when, she says, "our story has not been told." Some 1,000 people attended the conference, which marked the official opening of the Bethune Museum and Archives for Black Women in Washington, D.C. It is the first institution devoted exclusively to black women's history.

Height ends her speech by urging audience members to rededicate themselves to community service because, she says, "What we did in '79 is not going to be good enough in the '80s." For Height, that meant launching a major new initiative in the 1980s that focused on strengthening black families. In 1986, the NCNW organized the first Black Family Reunion celebration, a massive day-long festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C. that brought together multiple generations of black families to celebrate their heritage. The event drew more than 200,000 people and soon there were reunions in major cities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. By 1992, more than 10 million people had attended one of the celebrations. Height's idea was to remind African Americans of the traditional values that had enabled them to overcome historic discrimination, and to share practical information for getting ahead. "We are not a problem people," she explained in her 2003 memoir, "we are a people with problems." The Black Family Reunions were meant to "awaken people to their rights, responsibilities, and opportunities…I know we have black people – though some people may not yet know this themselves - who are leaders. With the right kind of encouragement, these people could show their brothers and sisters the way."11


I came into office at a time when we were struggling very hard as black women in this country, seeking to get hold of our organization and to hold our heads high in the society around us. One of the things that had confronted us was that we were the inheritors of a great organization headed by Mrs. Bethune, and we did not have tax-exempt status. And, I think there are people in this room who remember as I do, how we stood on the floor and said, "If it means we have to give up political action, let's not worry about it." And we struggled on. We could not get any contributions based upon the person's being exempt.

So, one of the first things that we did was to seek a way to give us the chance to expand our program so that the political activity that we can never give up would not –would somehow be in balance with the rest of it. And I think the educational foundation that was established – and Daisy Lampkin served as its chair and Dorothy Ferebee followed her – was a means through which we were able to initiate some kind – new kinds of program activities. And one of the first of these was the Bethune House here in Washington, the first 221-D.C. housing program sponsored by a non-governmental organization.

But it was very shortly thereafter that the country was caught up in something else. It was moving towards what we had said in the NAACP, we would be "free by '63." But little did we know the events that would somehow step up around us. [Previous speaker] Mrs. Mason has referred to Rosa Parks and you know the story of Montgomery. And you know what that did to the whole nation and what it set in motion; the sit-ins, the pray-ins, all the different kind of things that were happening. And in the middle of all of that as the things began to move, the Taconic Foundation, under the leadership of Stephen Currier, wanted to know what could be done to help deal with the problems of the black community, and the black family. And they called together Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, and Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, C. Eric Lincoln – who had written a book on the black Muslims – A. Phillip Randolph, Jack Greenberg – who was with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund – and me. And made us pledge that we would somehow stay together, never send a substitute but come ourselves to each meeting, and that we would dedicate one day every six weeks to thinking together about where we were.

And I remember that each one took an assignment. I took the assignment of organizations because I was interested in organizations. And one of the significant things that I think we often forget is that black people and black women have been as shut out of volunteer opportunities on boards and committees and organizations outside of their own [communities] - they've been just as shut out there as we are out of jobs. And so I began to work with that kind of study. And someone else took housing and away we went. And then suddenly something happened: Medgar Evers was assassinated. And, on the morning after his assassination, Stephen Currier called us all back together again and he said, "We've been thinking of ourselves as a kind of united civil rights leadership." But he said, "What we need to do now is to see how this country can be brought to a realization, that it cannot exist with this kind of thing happening, and what all this signifies."

He sent out telegrams to a hundred people to meet at the Carlisle Hotel the next morning. Ninety-some persons appeared, and he had each of us tell the story of the organization and its driving. Roy Wilkins had to leave for the funeral of Medgar Evers. And, then after that, the rest of us all had a chance to talk. I had to say what it meant to black women that we were a part of the whole civil rights movement, that we were a civil rights organization, really, under the leadership of women. And that we had had a major hand in that whole beginning with the significant male leadership, to point out that we had to add to that great group that started, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, no matter what it was doing or who agreed with its tactics or not. Because as women, we could not see our children and our youth struggling and have them on the outside of our effort.

And after we had each told the stories, Stephen Currier made an appeal. He received pledges of some $800,000 for the civil rights movement. Those organizations that were tax-exempt could reap the full benefits. We were not tax-exempt, but we did have the educational arm, which was the educational foundation. So that as contributions were made, we received $50,000 from that civil rights pot. And I think I have to add there that another piece of money that came to us through the civil rights effort was from Martin Luther King Jr., who when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, came back and he said to all of us around the table, "I have to give every organization its piece." I think we know a lot about Dr. King, but I think that's a little known story of how he shared with each of those organizations.

From that little spark, we were asked also to perform another function, because we did have an educational foundation. We were asked to become the trustees for the funds the NAACP – which was not tax-exempt – gathered for the Evers children. And I'll always remember how Mrs. Lampkin, when the time came, said to us, "It is good that we did this because those were lean days at many points." But we held that money and the interest and it all went to that family and those children, because it was what people who had expressed their concern wanted them to have.

So that in a sense, the civil rights movement and our role in it shaped the task of anyone carrying leadership in the organization. It meant – and I look over here and I see Arnetta Wallace – that on a certain day after the four little girls were murdered in Birmingham, that we descended into Birmingham, 14 heads of national women's organizations, members of the National Council of Negro Women. And we were there, we marched through the bayonets and we felt the tension in the city.

Dr. Ferebee and I were there in Selma long before the Selma march. We went down at the time that Prathia Wynn and James Forman called us and said, "Three hundred children are in jail here and nobody knows where they are. We need some outside voice that will come in and help us to get that story out." And we got there just as the 300 children were released from jail, and some of their pictures looked like the children in Cambodia because they were bare bones; they had been denied food and services. And when we asked them, "What have you been having?" one little boy said, "We've been eating boll weevil gravy." And when I looked at some of the children and I said to them, "You say so many bad things about people here. Don't you think there are some good white people?" And the little boy who had said the most looked up and he said - he looked at Dr. Ferebee and me - and he said, "Well, there must be some." [laughter] But you know, it was a driving thing to think that you live in a country where a child of one race would say, "There must be somebody of the other race who's decent."

And all of that kept pushing us. We went to Atlanta and brought together representatives – young women – who had been the victims of law enforcement officers in the jails. We heard them tell about the vaginal searches by orderlies who dipped their gloves in Lysol. We heard them tell about how they banned together, so that they would not be raped by the officers all around them. And we found ourselves, little by little, pulling together all our forces to say, "What is there we can do?" And I remember the meeting that we had in Atlanta, when we were talking about this, because we brought together white women's groups also, that they might know what was happening, as well.

And I'll never forget; we called it the Women's Inter-organizational Committee, because we didn't know what to call it. We didn't want to say it was a civil rights meeting. And when the meeting was over, one of the women said, "Well, you know, the initials of what we call [ourselves] is WIC. And it if means that if each one of us, no matter whether we are black or white, should go back into her community and be like a wick, lighted, that could be – that little bit of light, that could make a difference. And, out of that, the whole concept of WICS was developed.

And when we were called upon to reach young women in poverty, the very coalition we had put together became the one that Sargent Shriver could call upon to help recruit young women for the Job Corps. And someone said, "What shall we call it?" And I remember Helen Racklin saying, "Well we already have WIC," so we called it Women in Community Service.

In other words, the National Council of Negro Women has been there even when our story has not been told. You may remember that in the summer of 1963, there was a great march on Washington. We were there. We did something that we were asked not to do, but it was too late when we heard they were asking that no one meet after the march on Washington. We held a meeting called "After the March, What?" And out of that meeting, there came a molding of some new spirits and new interests. So that by 1964, when Bob Moses called for the summer in Mississippi, the freedom schools, we had a coalition of women already working together, and those women went down into Mississippi on Wednesdays. Etta Barnett is one of them, who is here tonight.

And we went in interracial teams with an idea that was designed by Polly Cowan, that we would go in to see what was happening to young people in the freedom schools. But that we would always carry our talents and we would always do something that would be significant. So out of Wednesdays in Mississippi, we began to build bridges of understanding between black and white women in the South and black and white women in communities across the country. And one of the significant things that had happened in that Atlanta meeting I mentioned was that we asked the women who were there, because so much was being said about, you know, "Yankees stay home; don't interfere with what's going on in the South." We asked them a question: "Does it help you or does it hinder you to have a national organization come in?" And, the women, Clarice Harvey, speaking for one group of women said, "We're from Jackson, Miss. We are black and white women. We are seeing each other here and knowing each other for the first time. But we know one thing, we will never be apart again." And then she said, "Don't give up. A national organization is like a long-handled spoon: you can come in and stir us up and get us moving."

I always thought that that was a good demonstration of what Mrs. Bethune had in mind, in saying that when you think about it, there is no such thing as just being local when you're part of a national movement. And that that sense of being a part of a national movement came through in some very real ways. We had after that, workshops in Mississippi, which got us into housing – into housing with low-income families. We were working with hunger, pig banks – we established pig banks and pig agreements with families. Because the people we saw in the workshops in Mississippi said to us, "We are concerned about our rights, but we have no jobs and our children have to eat." And so we helped them to see how to plant gardens, how to – I don't know, you don't grow pigs – (laughter) raise pigs, I guess; how to deal with pigs and we taught them how to feed them. And some of those people said to us afterwards, "We learned through those pigs that it makes a difference what you eat. And many of us have never had the food that we needed."

Today, the National Council of Negro Women is able to report that we have assets that are some four to five million dollars. But we could not have even thought about this before 1965 when we got our tax exemption. December 1, 1965. There's a recent report just released on philanthropy to women's organizations. And it cites five organizations and we rank third in terms of organizations who have received substantial support from foundations. In 1966, when the Ford Foundation made us a grant of $300,000, that was the most that it or any other foundation had given to a women's organization. 1966. Just think of that. So it shows you where women's groups were.

Out of that experience, we learned one thing: that the Council, in order to do the job, had to have the supporting services of staff. We had to have staff who could understand that they were part of an organization that is essentially volunteer, but that their job was to be a part of a partnership and to be supportive. And so today across this country, in some 20 locations, we have moved to the point where we have staff working at many different levels. There are some 146 of them. There are 72 who will be in this convention. But the important thing is not their numbers, nor that there are jobs, but it is the realization that where black women are in a society requires that we have the capability to work at our needs not after hours but all through the day. That some of that continuity has to come through the kind of devoted, skilled work that staff give: disciplined and directed, but responsive to the interests and concerns of the volunteers and the membership of the National Council of Negro Women.

I think another piece of movement I'd like to mention that I think has affected us over these years, came because we were working to put [a statue of] Mrs. Bethune in Lincoln Park. When we started out in 1960, people said this was, you know, just something that we were discussing. But how could we stand to see Abraham Lincoln with a slave at his knee, put there by the emancipated group in 1874 with the funds raised by the newly emancipated citizens, and not try to place on the other end of that park a memorial that would say black people have made a contribution in American life? Charlotte Scott gave the first five dollars she earned in her freedom to start the Emancipation Group. And, so we called upon people across the country to respond.

In the course of things Abraham Lincoln was turned around so that his back would not face Mrs. Bethune. [laughter] Every time we say that, the Interior Department corrects us and says, "He was not turned around; he was repositioned." [laughter and applause]

Another movement that hit us very hard was the movement of women. And when you ask me the question that you've asked us all about [which was worse], racism or sexism, I have to say that the International Women's Year found itself with a unique contribution because, not only of our domestic work, but of our international interests and the things that we have tried to do. Because it was at that time, at the 100th anniversary of Mrs. Bethune's birth, that we were determined that we would make and expand on the international interests. There's so many things. Mrs. Mason and I were in Haiti working in the name of the National Council of Negro Women to get the vote for women there. I thought for the moment it was Mrs. Bethune's administration and I asked Vivian today and she said no, it was Dr. Ferebee's administration. But they all used the same techniques. I was then president of Delta Sigma Theta, and we were called and asked to go. Vivian represented the Council; Laura Lovely, [inaudible] Kappa Alpha, and I, Delta Sigma Theta, and when we said, "Where are the funds?" They said, "Oh, well of course we know your groups will see that you get there." [laughter] And they did, but that's the way the Council was represented for years and years. For we went into our pockets and when you got there you said, "I represent the National Council of Negro Women." [laughter and applause] And, you were proud to do it!

So it was to be understood that in International Women's Year, we would get support to have at Mexico City, a group of women from Africa and from the Caribbean. And then we had the chance to bring them back with us to let them see the pig banks; to go to visit the housing; to visit people; and then to join us for the 100th birthday celebration of Mary McLeod Bethune at Bethune-Cookman College. And, I tell you, that is an occasion that we will never forget.

But it also heightened the fact that we are part of a whole women's movement. I think very strongly that no group has more right to say that than we. Bill Trent tells a story that's a favorite of mine. He says that Mrs. Bethune once had a meeting in Memphis, and she'd asked a nationally known black male to make the keynote address. And as he stood, he looked at the women and he said, "If you women would be as concerned about what you put in your heads, as what you are about what you have on heads, our race would be better off." And, he said at that point, Mrs. Bethune rose and said, "Thank you sir, you have said quite enough." [laughter and applause] "The women will decide what they have on their heads and what they put in their heads." [laughter and applause]

Now, I think any organization that follows that has to be concerned about women. But when you ask me the question about race and sex, I want to add something else that I saw recently in a poster. And that poster was a woman who had two chains; she was chained down with two very heavy pieces of stone, with chains on her legs. And the heading underneath was "Double Trouble." And the idea that it reflected was, take one away – one said "racism" and the other said "sexism" – take one away and she is still tied down. Take the other away and leave that one, she's still tied down. The only way she will make it: they both have to be eliminated. [applause] And I think that as we move into our convention with an idea of imperatives for the '80s, we need to work very hard to eliminate both racism and sexism.

Two things I want to say about our internal life. One is that the spirit of collaboration and cooperation that has been expressed in the wider society has also touched us. In 1969, we had a meeting at Nassau, in which the national organizations comprising the National Council of Negro Women said, "It is so important to build this power that we must get every member we can in our organizations to become a direct member. And that small amount that each one contributes each year, can help us to build our strength." We're far from achieving that goal, but seven of our national organizations, even this year, have called upon their members to do this and it is coming in steadily. Because you know, as I think it was Billie Holiday [who] said it, "Mama may have and Papa may have, but God bless the child that's got his own." [applause]

Now, because as proud as we are of what we have achieved, the fact is that today we have about a 99 percent batting average in our request for government and foundation support. But we are concerned that we also keep building that internal support, because those funds come but they're earmarked, you're not free to use them. It is what we do ourselves that makes the difference. Now the other thing that is a characteristic we've been working on, is the realization that with revenue sharing, with the new federalism, with everything moving to the states, black women had better learn to get themselves together in those states, because [applause] decisions are being made in the states. And while we considered clustering areas and regions, we now are trying to see that we look at the status as the black women in each of the states and try to amass our power there.

So, you see, we are in the state of still becoming. We have so far to go. But I remember two things that were said this morning, that have kind of stayed with me all day. It was what Jeanetta Welch Brown said when she said, [there's been] a lot of talk about some of the early days – and each of us could tell you a whole lot of things – but what she said came through to me: "There's been a lot of suffering that has gone into building the National Council of Negro Women." A lot of people in many places have put a lot into it. And then Sue Bailey Thurman, remember what she said in her message: "This is an organization of women with caring hearts." I look back and realize that I've been a part of the Council since 1937. And I don't think that outside of my mother and my church, there's been anything, any person of greater influence than Mary McLeod Bethune. And I think the thing that I'm sure if we could all say it as a trio, we would want to say, is that the thing about the National Council of Negro Women that is its greatest source of strength, is the depth of the vision of the dream that Mrs. Bethune left with us.

Who, except a great dreamer could be born of slave parents, could struggle in the fields of South Carolina, and leave a legacy that begins with the words, "I leave you love?" And if you take this message, it seems to me, that when we look to what's to happen in the future, it isn't going to be just by, you know, designating this post, or that post, or this staff or that volunteer, or this whatever. It's going to be the extent to which all of us rededicate ourselves – whether we are members of Council or not – to the idea of seeing how caring hearts take hold of a mission and keep it relevant, because what we did in '79 is not going to be good enough in the '80s. Thank you.

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