Behind the Curtain at TMM

What Will Your Legacy Be?

Press Conference about the Equal Pay Act

hide captionThe late civil rights activist Dorothy Height attends a press conference to address the Equal Pay Act in June 2001.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

We’re working on a number of stories.

One big event here in D.C. that we’re trying to plan for is a final tribute for civil rights leader Dorothy Height. A number of her homegoing services start today: she will lie in repose at the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW); there will be a service by the sorority that she once led as president, Delta Sigma Theta; a service open to the community; and solemn rites at the National Cathedral.

You’ll note that most people refer to her as Dr. Dorothy Height, in recognition of the more than three dozen (!!!) honorary degrees she received throughout her life (and by the way — I can’t even imagine it — I have a friend who has, like six or seven, but three dozen???? That’s amazing to me) but the NPR style is such that we only use Dr. to describe a medical degree. It’s a tricky question. You don’t want to offend anyone by not using the honorific. It’s a big deal with many people – like the wife of the vice president, Jill Biden, who holds a doctorate and prefers to be addressed as Dr. Biden. On the other hand, the style exists for a reason — for consistency for one thing, and also, I am guessing, because it is confusing to the ear to hear doctor if you just tuned into a story. You might think it was a medical issue.

But anyway, I was thinking about the honorific because it also stands as a metaphor for something else to me, which is, how do we wish to be remembered? And is that the same as how those who love us want us to be remembered?

I never had a chance or opportunity to ask her, was that “Dr. business” important to HER? I am wondering because I have to say that one thing I always liked about (Dr.) Dorothy Height was her “sister friend-ness”. She could be a very grand figure — she had that amazing voice, she wore those amazing outfits (especially those hats!) — and people treated her with a lot of deference, at least in her later years, which was when I got to meet her. Of course, back in the day, when she was the only major civil rights figure who did NOT speak at the March on Washington, it was a different story.  

But I always liked the way she treated other people, including me, which is to say, whenever I saw her she was interested in what YOU had to say, in what YOU were doing. One small detail: if you were running a speaking event and she was asked to speak for 10 minutes, it would be 10 minutes. If you asked her to speak for five, it would be five. Not every famous person is like that. To me it says that for as long as she was on center stage she didn’t need to hog the stage.

Over the next several days she, and her memory, will be center stage. It’s a hard thing to capture but somehow I hope that sweet modest side finds a voice in there somehow.

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