The news last week of the death of 98-year-old Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, recalled for me the March 22 blog “Black Church Women and Other Ordinary People.” I meant the title to be ironic, still, Height was anything but ordinary.
The NCNW, with more than 4 million members, advocates on behalf of women and minority issues through 34 national and 250 community-based organizations. The group was one of an alphabet soup of groups profiled by historian Bettye Collier-Thomas in her book Jesus, Jobs, and Jusice: The History of African American Women and Religion.
Height relinquished her title as president of NCNW in 1997. She’d had a long career as an activist even before she joined the organization founded by her mentor, Mary McLeon Bethune. She was trained as a social worker and eventually took her advocacy for civil rights to the highest offices, lobbying for racial justice to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1940s and pressing President Dwight D. Eisenhower on school desegregation in the 1950s. She was a long-time director of the YWCA and presided over the integration of its facilities nationwide in the 1940s. Height worked with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and other feminists to establish the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. During the tumultuous civil rights struggle of the 1960s, Height was right there with the better known figures of the movement — Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, and others — to formulate strategy. President Bill Clinton recognized her efforts, awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor in 1994.
Height is one among many women in the book by Collier-Thomas. I searched for titles that focus on Heights specifically and found her memoir Open Wide the Freedom Gates, published in 2003.
Surely, some author will take up the task of writing about an extraordinary woman, called by President Obama “the godmother of the civil rights movement.”