Alexis Herman Remembers Civil Rights Titan Dorothy Height

Civil Rights legend and trailblazer Dorothy Height died today at the age of 98. Height was the founder of National Council of Negro Women and worked tirelessly over her career for human and civil rights. Host Michel Martin speaks with Alexis Herman, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, about Height’s legacy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now, we want to take a moment to remember the legendary civil rights leader Dorothy Height. She died this morning at the age of 98. The only woman among the leaders of the big six civil rights organizations, Height worked for human rights and civil rights here at home and abroad since she was a young social worker.

She worked alongside leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., but she had a particular interest in helping women find their voices in leadership. For decades she served variously on the staff of the Young Women's Christian Association, as the national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and as president of the National Council of Negro Women.

She still went to the office nearly every day until she went to the hospital on March 25th with an unspecified ailment. We wanted to talk more about this woman, so we've called Alexis Herman. She served as the secretary of labor under President Clinton and was one of many people whose lives were touched by Dorothy Height. Alexis Herman, thank you so much for joining us. Our condolences.

Ms. ALEXIS HERMAN (Former Secretary of Labor, Clinton Administration): Oh, thank you so much, Michel. And she would've been so proud of your distinguished career. So it's a pleasure for me to be here with you today in her memory.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. What do you think she was good at? What is it that you think made her so special?

Ms. HERMAN: You know, what made Dorothy Height so special was her steadiness, her visionary leadership. She was always about the future. And she really believed in service. For her, her life was about service and giving back. And she always said it wasn't about the many years of her life, but what she did with it.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think people note about her is that she always had a very clear voice on the relationship between women's rights and civil rights. I just want to play a short clip from a conversation that we had with her last year, I think right after election day. Here it is.

Ms. DOROTHY HEIGHT (Civil Rights Leader): All of it was towards saying, how can we bring all the people who need to understand the role that women have played, but also the predicament women face, and especially we who are women of color, where we have both sex and racial discrimination as a characteristic for our lives.

MARTIN: Was that a hard argument for her to make? Did she find a receptive ear for this? As I mentioned - and she was very often the only woman at the table in some of these, sort of the major discussions around civil rights, or certainly the only woman who had a prominent voice.

Ms. HERMAN: It was not a hard argument for her to make. I think it was sometimes a hard lesson for others to hear. But she never wavered in her commitment or her beliefs. And that was the reason why I think at the end of the day so many people did end up listening to what she had to say, because she was always the voice of reason. She was always the voice of clarity. And so for her it was never hard. She did what she had to do virtually all of her life.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think many people may not remember, because so much of this work went on behind closed doors, is just how courageous she was in forging interracial coalitions. I think many people forget today that bringing women of color together with white women in some of these groups was actually an act of physical courage. And I wondered if you could tell us, what skill did she bring to that? Why do you think she was so effective in coalition building?

Ms. HERMAN: I think she was so effective in coalition building - first of all, she always had an ear for others. She was always willing to listen to the perspectives of others and to find a win in every situation. And she could always carve out a way that others could work together. And so while others heard differences, she really listened for those places in ways that you could come together. She had a unique ability to do that.

And I have been with her in so many meetings, so many settings where people would be arguing and they weren't listening and hearing one another. And all of a sudden she would come up with the one statement, the one idea, the one issue around which you could forge that coalition. So she could always find that middle ground, that common ground.

MARTIN: And one of the things I think is also interesting for people who may not have known her is that I think in her later years she was known as this elegant senior diva in her fabulous hat and so forth. But she was a really strong advocate for young people. She was always urging young people to find their voice. I just want to play another short clip very quickly. Here it is.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Ms. HEIGHT: I like to say to young people today, you are the beneficiaries of what a lot of people worked and gave their lives for. And you are enjoying things, no matter how bad it may seem, you're still better off than many of those who worked to bring us to this point. And the important thing now is not to go it alone on your own by yourself, but see how you will join with others, get organized in how you will serve others and how you will help to move this forward.

MARTIN: Alexis Herman, how will you remember her?

Ms. HERMAN: I will remember her as someone that I was blessed to have in my life for nearly 40 years. And for me she was my first lady of service. She taught me what it really meant to give back and to make a difference.

MARTIN: Alexis Herman is the former secretary of Labor. She was kind enough to join us on the phone on this sad day as we remember Dorothy Height. Alexis Herman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. HERMAN: Thank you, Michel.

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Civil Rights Activist Dorothy Height Dies

  • Dorothy Height, national president of the National Council of Negro Women and director of the Center for Racial Justice of the national YWCA, poses for a photo in March 1974. Height, who was a longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women, was the leading female voice of the 1960s civil rights movement. She died Tues., April 20, at age 98.
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    Dorothy Height, national president of the National Council of Negro Women and director of the Center for Racial Justice of the national YWCA, poses for a photo in March 1974. Height, who was a longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women, was the leading female voice of the 1960s civil rights movement. She died Tues., April 20, at age 98.
    AP
  • Height (third from right) and other members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. present Mamie Eisenhower with a copy of their song, "There'll be a Jubilee," on May 14, 1953. Height was national president of the sorority from 1946-1957.
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    Height (third from right) and other members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. present Mamie Eisenhower with a copy of their song, "There'll be a Jubilee," on May 14, 1953. Height was national president of the sorority from 1946-1957.
    Byron Rollins/AP
  • Height listens to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during his "I Have a Dream" speech during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Height was the only woman on the speakers' platform.
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    Height listens to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during his "I Have a Dream" speech during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Height was the only woman on the speakers' platform.
    AP
  • Height, and other African-American leaders, chat after a meeting with New York City Mayor Robert Wagner on June 4, 1965.
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    Height, and other African-American leaders, chat after a meeting with New York City Mayor Robert Wagner on June 4, 1965.
    AP
  • President and Mrs. Reagan greet Height during a White House East Room reception on Thursday, July 28, 1983.
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    President and Mrs. Reagan greet Height during a White House East Room reception on Thursday, July 28, 1983.
    AP
  • Height taps the Liberty Bell to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 20, 1992. The bell ringing was simultaneous in hundreds of cities and countries around the world.
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    Height taps the Liberty Bell to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 20, 1992. The bell ringing was simultaneous in hundreds of cities and countries around the world.
    Chris Gardner/AP
  • President George H. Bush meets with Height and John Jacob of the Urban League, meet in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington on May 1, 1992. The president met with civil rights leaders to discuss the rioting in Los Angeles.
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    President George H. Bush meets with Height and John Jacob of the Urban League, meet in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington on May 1, 1992. The president met with civil rights leaders to discuss the rioting in Los Angeles.
    Marcy Nighswander/AP
  • President Clinton applauds Height after presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the White House East Room on Aug. 8, 1994.
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    President Clinton applauds Height after presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the White House East Room on Aug. 8, 1994.
    Doug Mills/AP
  • President Bush, second from left, presents the Congressional Gold Medal to Height on March 23, 2004.
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    President Bush, second from left, presents the Congressional Gold Medal to Height on March 23, 2004.
    Charles Dharapak/AP
  • Height (center) is accompanied by (from left) Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), former Ambassador Andrew Young, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington on Nov. 13, 2006.
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    Height (center) is accompanied by (from left) Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), former Ambassador Andrew Young, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington on Nov. 13, 2006.
    Lauren Victoria Burke/AP
  • Oprah Winfrey and Height during the Uncommon Height Gala honoring Winfrey in Washington, D.C., on June 4, 2009. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said, "Every black woman, it seems to me, has to see Dorothy Height as an inspiration."
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    Oprah Winfrey and Height during the Uncommon Height Gala honoring Winfrey in Washington, D.C., on June 4, 2009. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said, "Every black woman, it seems to me, has to see Dorothy Height as an inspiration."
    Jose Luis Magana/AP

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Legendary civil rights leader Dorothy Height, who spent most of her life battling for the empowerment of women and blacks and who had the ear of U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Obama, died Tuesday. She was 98.

She died of natural causes at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C.

In 1963, Height was the only woman on the speaker's platform when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. But she wasn't on the program for the March on Washington even though she was the nucleus of the meetings held by the mostly male civil rights leaders who planned it.

Height told NPR in 2003 that the experience was uplifting despite the fact that a gospel singer was the only woman heard from the podium that day.

"My being seated there had some very special meaning because women had been trying to get a woman to speak on the program," Height said, "but we were always met by the planners with the idea that women were represented in all of the different groups, in the churches, in the synagogues, in the unions, organizations and the like. So the only voice we heard of a woman was that of Mahalia Jackson."

Though not a scheduled speaker, Daisy Bates was ultimately allowed to say a few words at the event.

Height said women in the movement met the next day to discuss ways to deal with the issues of racism and sexism.

"All of it was toward saying how can we bring all the people who need to understand the role that women have played, but also the predicament women face, and especially we who are women of color, where we’ve had both sex and racial discrimination as a characteristic of our lives," she said.

By the 1960s, Height had already been focused on equality and fairness for more than 30 years. And she had dedicated her life to those battles.

'An Absolute Genius'

Dorothy Irene Height was born in Richmond, Va., on March 24, 1912, and grew up in Rankin, Pa. In high school, she won a scholarship to Barnard College after winning a national oratorical contest. But she arrived after Barnard had already admitted the two blacks it accepted per year at the time. Instead, Height earned her bachelor's and master’s degrees at New York University in four years and did postgraduate studies in social work. By 1933, Height was working against lynching and for reforms in the nation’s criminal justice system and for free access to public accommodations.

Height, who was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004, is perhaps best known for her work with the National Council of Negro Women. The group's headquarters in Washington, D.C., stands steps from where slaves were once traded in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Height was president emerita of the NCNW.

Harvard professor Charles Ogletree called Height "an absolute genius."

"Everything that we do today is influenced by her sacrifices decades ago, her marches as a teenager against lynching, her buying a building right on Pennsylvania Avenue to in a sense to talk about the slave trade, and her commitment to open up doors for others is unparalleled," Ogletree said.

In 1937, Height was working with the YWCA in Harlem and was assigned to escort Eleanor Roosevelt into one of the Negro women's group meetings. NCNW founder Mary McLeod Bethune noticed Height and asked the young woman to join the organization’s quest for women's rights for full, equal employment, pay and education. In addition to her 33 years on the national board of the YWCA and her nearly 40 years with the NCNW, Height also served as national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. from 1947 to 1957. The tiny woman was known for her impeccable attire — and her stylish, striking hats.

"Every black woman, it seems to me, has to see Dorothy Height as an inspiration," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's representative in Congress.

She said everyone who was either a feminist or in the civil rights struggle has worked with Height. But black women are not the only ones who were in awe of her, according to Holmes Norton.

"Dorothy Height gets the same kind of hush when she comes into a room full of white women," the lawmaker said.

Darlene Clark Hine, a professor of history and African-American studies at Northwestern University, said Height "was able to engender greater conversations — dialog, communication — between white and black women."

She said Height's ability to bridge racial, regional and class divides between women was important, but that it was her focus on education, voter registration and political mobilization that was vital to black women, who weren't able to engage in the political process at the same level as their white counterparts after women got the vote in 1920.

A Leader In The Civil Rights Movement

Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) said Height should be counted among the leaders of the movement. Her ability to distill a message and direction from a roomful of dissenting voices, he said, was extraordinary.

"Dorothy Height emerged at a time when there was male chauvinism at its height," Lewis said.

She "had the rare ability — and I think part of it was just innate — to sort of soothe the conflict, the division, the schism, and bring people together," Lewis said. "Being a woman, but more than just being a woman, she could say, 'Now brethren, now brothers and sisters,' and people listened to her."

Dorothy Height presents Eleanor Roosevelt with the Mary McLeod Bethune Human Rights Award in 1960. i i

hide captionDorothy Height presents Eleanor Roosevelt with the Mary McLeod Bethune Human Rights Award in 1960. At the time, Height was president of the National Council of Negro Women.

Bettmann/Corbis
Dorothy Height presents Eleanor Roosevelt with the Mary McLeod Bethune Human Rights Award in 1960.

Dorothy Height presents Eleanor Roosevelt with the Mary McLeod Bethune Human Rights Award in 1960. At the time, Height was president of the National Council of Negro Women.

Bettmann/Corbis

Her fundraising abilities were legendary. "She could call her white sisters and Jewish sisters and others — she could get on the telephone and call the Rockefellers, the Fords and others, and they'd listen to her," Lewis said.

Height continued to fight for equal justice up until the end of her life. In 2008, she told NPR — while wearing a feathered purple chapeau with a fetching bow — that there is unfinished business in civil rights.

"We don't need the marches we had in the past," she said. "But we need more consideration in looking at the boardroom tables and at the policies that are going on — looking at what's happening in industry, what's happening in terms of employment opportunities, housing and the like."

And Height left a message for the young people she has worked with so passionately throughout her career. The younger generations, she said, are the beneficiaries of what a lot of people worked and gave their lives for. It is important for the young to get organized in how they will serve others, because when people work for something bigger than themselves, there's no way they can help but grow.

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