On August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington, Dorothy Height sat on the speakers’ platform and listened to Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. She had helped organize the rally that brought about 250,000 people to the National Mall. In fact, she’d been in the forefront of the civil right struggle for decades as the president of the National Council of Negro Women.
On that day, despite her oratorical skills and influence, she wasn’t asked to speak. One after another, male civil rights leaders stepped in front of her and took the microphone.
Height’s activism ended with her death last week on April 20. President Barack Obama will speak today at her funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. She was a lifelong activist: Her first protests were against lynching in the 1930s. She was mentored by activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of the NCNW, and she led that organization from 1957 to 1997. Height fought dual battles against racism and sexism. Since her death, she has been lauded for it. During her life, she was a victim of both, as The New York Times explained:
“If Ms. Height was less well known than her contemporaries in either the civil rights or women’s movement, it was perhaps because she was doubly marginalized, pushed offstage by women’s groups because of her race and by black groups because of her sex. Throughout her career, she responded quietly but firmly, working with a characteristic mix of limitless energy and steely gentility to ally the two movements in the fight for social justice.
“As a result, Ms. Height is widely credited as the first person in the modern civil rights era to treat the problems of equality for women and equality for African-Americans as a seamless whole, merging concerns that had been largely historically separate.”
If the truth is to be taught, then Height’s name must be added to the list of icons like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Whitney Young of the Urban League. Her long list of accomplishments is so much more remarkable given the biases she fought within the movements she championed.
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