Dorothy Height: 'Godmother' Of Civil Rights

  • 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 died Tuesday morning, at age 98. She dedicated her life to empowering women and blacks, and led the National Council of Negro Women for four decades.

Height was born in Richmond, Va., and grew up near Pittsburgh. As a teenager, she won a scholarship to Barnard College in New York, only to find that the school had already admitted its quota of two blacks.

In 1963, as Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington, only one woman stood on the platform behind him: Dorothy Height. A lifelong champion of civil rights, Height organized a meeting the next day in which women in the movement could address racism and sexism.

Height had the ear of U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Obama. President Obama paid homage to Height in a statement Tuesday, calling her a hero and "the godmother of the civil rights movement."

Roger Wilkins, former assistant Attorney General during the Johnson Administration and professor at George Mason University, remembers Height with great fondness. Wilkins' mother hired Height to work with her at the YWCA, in a unit on erasing racism and segregation.

Wilkins first met Height when he was 8-years-old, and jokes Height used their long relationship to her advantage. "She could always blackmail me," Wilkins tells NPR's Neal Conan, threatening "to tell people 'Little Roger' stories" if he wouldn't help her out.

Blanche Williams, founder of National Black Women's Town Hall Inc., saw Height as one of the women to "pattern [her] life by." Williams worked with Height on The Souls Of Black Girls, a film about the media impact on the self esteem of black women and other women of color.

At the time, Williams remembers, Height called the film "the answer to a prayer." Williams says she is saddened by the loss of Height, yet also energized and inspired by her legacy.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

In 1963, as Martin Luther King, Jr. told the March on Washington, I have a dream, only one woman stood on the platform behind him: Dorothy Height. A lifelong champion of civil rights, she organized a meeting the next day where women in the movement could address racism and sexism. Dorothy Height died earlier today at the age of 98. She was born in Richmond, Virginia, grew up near Pittsburg, won a scholarship to Barnard College in New York only to find the school had already admitted its quota of two blacks.

In the 1940s, she lobbied First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on behalf of civil rights, had the ear of presidents from Eisenhower to Obama, who described her in a statement today as the godmother of the civil rights movement. She played leading roles in both the YWCA and the National Council of Negro Women. Joining us today to remember Dorothy Height is Roger Wilkins, former assistant attorney general during the Johnson administration, and Clarence J. Robinson, professor of history and American culture at George Mason University. He's kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.

Roger, nice to have you back on the program.

Professor ROGER WILKINS (George Mason University): Neal, thank you.

CONAN: Also with us is Blanche Williams, founder of the National Black Women's Town Hall Incorporated, with us on the line from Florida.

And Blanche Williams, thank you for joining us today.

Ms. BLANCHE WILLIAMS: (National Black Women's Town Hall, Inc.): My pleasure.

CONAN: And let's begin with you, Roger Wilkins. Your mother worked with Dorothy Height.

Prof. WILKINS: My mother did, in 19 - I think in 1941 - began to be the director of a small unit in the national office of the YWCA, a unit on erasing racism...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. WILKINS: ...and segregation. And she hired this wonderful young woman as her assistant, and that is how I can look you in the eye and say I've known Dorothy Height for 70 years.

CONAN: Oh, my gosh. When did you first meet her? Do you remember?

Prof. WILKINS: When I was eight.

CONAN: Eight years old.

Prof. WILKINS: When she and my mother worked together, and she and I have done things together and she would always - she could always blackmail me. That was - Roger, I know you're busy and I know you have lots of things to do, but this is important. For example, if you don't do this, I may start to tell people Little Roger stories.

CONAN: Oh, my gosh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WILKINS: She used that on many occasions.

CONAN: When was the last time she used that? Not too long ago, I bet.

Prof. WILKINS: Well, the last thing that we discussed, she called me and said, Roger, when were you in the White House? And I said, I never worked in the White House, Miss Height. She said, yes, you did, you and Cliff Alexander. I said, no, Cliff worked at the White House. I worked in Justice, Commerce and State, but never in the White House. And she said, well, I remember there was this meeting of the black leaders and you and Clifford came home to me and said (unintelligible) before those other guys come, this is where the president wants you to sit.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. WILKINS: And we said, no, that's - you sit there. Don't let anybody take this. Well, the guys came and I said, what happened? She said, you and Cliff made me stay in that seat. We - you came over and said, no, no, this is her seat because it was next to the president...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. WILKINS: ...or would be when the president got there. And I said, who were the people we pushed out of those seats? She said, Your Uncle Roy and Martin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Your uncle, Roy Wilkins and...

Prof. WILKINS: Yes.

CONAN: ...Martin Luther King, Jr.

Prof. WILKINS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay. Well, I'm glad that she knew her place. (Unintelligible) knew her place.

We'd like to hear from those listeners - if any of you worked with Dorothy Height in the National Council of Negro Women, if in some way she touched your life, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Blanche Williams, you are from another generation. Can you tell us something about the legacy of Dorothy Height?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Wow. Yes. (Technical difficulties) opportunities where we can look back. And I remember in 1991, a friend of mine gave me a (technical difficulties) and it was called "I Dream a World," and it had Dorothy Height in it. And I began, along with the other women in the book, to sort of say, these are the women that I need to sort of pattern my life by. And, you know, fast-forward, I had a chance to work with her in 2008 when I brought a film to her called "The Souls of Black Girls." And the film talked about the media impact on the self-esteem of black women and other women of color. And she said at that time that it was the answer to a prayer. And that's when I knew I had done something that was good in her eyes and that was meaningful and necessary.

And so, you know, today, as I'm so humbled and, you know, saddened by her loss, I'm also very energized by her because like Roger was saying, you know, she blackmailed him, but a lot of times, blackmail in her book is inspiring you to do something. And so she - from the opportunity that I had to actually bring the film to her in the National Congress of Negro Women and the community in the D.C. area, that following - a couple of months after that, I came to her again and I said, Dr. Height, I have something else that I'd love for you to partner with me to do, and that was the first annual National Black Women's Town Hall. And that was in July of 2008.

And I remember when I was about to go out and we had done it at the historical headquarters in D.C., I said, you know, Dr. Height, I'm really nervous, you know. I've got some butterflies, because, you know, C-SPAN was covering it. We had this, you know, sold-out - you know, sold-out event and so forth. And it was just - I was a little nervous. And, you know, I'm a speaker. I'm a talk show host, all these things. But it was for Dr. Height, you know. So she said, Blanche, I want you to remember something and then, you know, very, very calmly - and she just had this very profound way of saying things. And she said: All you need to do is organize your butterflies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: And I just was like, as simple as that. And when she said it, it's like, the nervousness didn't go away, but it sort of was shifted and it became more of an energy and more of a commitment for me to really make sure that this was something that she was proud of.

CONAN: I should read the statement issued today by former President Bill Clinton and the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Dorothy Height, an icon of America's long march toward equality and a personal inspiration to us both. Dr. Height helped galvanize a movement that changed our country forever. She never stopped fighting for what she knew was right. Through it all, she was always the best-dressed woman in the room. And Roger Wilkins, I think she singlehandedly kept the women's hat business going in this country.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WILKINS: I'm sure that's true. You know, she understood that - she understood the black community very, very well and that the men would just naturally take over and run things.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.

Prof. WILKINS: And her message always was, like Abigail Adams was to her husband: Do not forget the ladies. And she brought - along with some other stunning women, but she brought women into the civil rights movement and looked into those dark corners that men often wouldn't look in. And she did it for all those years. And I realized that I first knew her when I was eight years old, and it's been 70 years of knowing this woman, doing it every way she could.

CONAN: And her tenure at the YWCA, almost 40 years, and then almost another 40 years at the National Council of Negro Women.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Prof. WILKINS: Well, she was a - at the end, when she began to be frail, if you cared for her deeply, you would wince that she was out and being pushed in a wheelchair and so forth. But she said, you know, this is my work. This is my -this is what I do. This is where my soul is. And...

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Prof. WILKINS: ...if I can't do this, this is not who I am.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Eric's on the line from Birmingham.

ERIC (Caller): Hey. How is it going? I got - I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Ms. Height years ago, almost by accident. She had organized something on Washington on the Mall called the Black Family Reunion because she believed in the importance of the black family, the structure that was there back in the '50s and '40s and such. And it was really apparent that structure starting to dissipated, if not fall apart in the '70s and '80s. So she organized this family reunion-type affair. And it was more of a symbolism of what was being done. I mean, there was a phrase: Keep hope alive. And, you know, that's kind of what she believed. And she was about two or three feet away, eating a drumstick - and she was there by herself and one other lady. And I went over there and shook her hand. She was very gracious. I said, I've heard so much about you.

But more importantly, the headquarters of National Council of Negro Women had a mortgage that was unpaid and needed to be paid. And Jesse Jackson said, let's pass around the basket, which was a tradition on the South Side of Chicago. And oddly enough, Oprah had heard about it, was not there, and found it to be just very uncivilized and said: How much is left? And wrote a check. But I was just very touched that I had met her in person some years ago.

CONAN: Eric, thanks very much for sharing that story. It's an interesting story. And Roger, as I recall, the house that he was talking about, the mortgage on the office, that's overlooked a spot where, well, not all that long ago in the terms of history, African-Americans were for sale in the city of Washington, D.C.

Prof. WILKINS: That's right. It's a - I asked her once, how do you feel about that? And she said, I feel that it's a measure of our progress, and it stimulates me to do more.

CONAN: We're talking with Roger Wilkins and with Blanche Williams as we remember Dorothy Height, who died earlier today here in Washington, D.C. at the age of 98. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Jack on the line. Jack's calling us from Tallahassee in Florida.

JACK (Caller): Yes. Thank you. To echo your previous caller, I met Ms. Height at a Children's Defense Fund conference in 1979 in Washington. And her message that I heard was that justice for young people transcended all races and backgrounds. And she seemed to resonate messages I got from my own grandmother Minnie, who was a Yiddish (technical difficulties) just back in the teens. And I remembered so much about that power of persuasion that she held, even in her modest style.

Just last week, I was in Washington at a Coalition for Juvenile Justice conference, walked by the headquarters of National Council of Negro Women and felt that chill of meeting her for the first time. And this whole conversation about the generations really resonates, because she represented so much of a bridge between old values and new opportunities. So it means so much to me as an advocate and as a youth advocate, especially.

CONAN: Jack, thanks very much for that. We appreciate it. Blanche Williams, I wanted to ask you to follow up on that. What can younger people today take from Ms. Height's life and take forward?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, that's a really good question. And I think that the most important thing is that everyone can make a difference. You know, she made a difference in her life. And each of us, you know, have to do that. She has a way of - and in my case, I feel very blessed that she sort of took me under her wing and said, you know, what you're doing is great, you know, and you need to keep doing it, you know. You organize those butterflies and you continue to get it done. And, you know, the deep respect and admiration that I had for her was sort of where we met. But what I was doing, as far as empowering young people, you know, was really important to her.

They can all make a difference. You just have to say I'm going to do it, and I'm going to play my position. Everybody has something to give. And as long as you serve with integrity and in the spirit of sisterhood, that's what she wanted.

Now, I want to share something else that's really special between she and I. We both did our African ancestry, and both of us come from the same tribe. We are both Mende. And when we had the first annual National Black Women's Town Hall, I presented her with a book that I had found that was about our tribe, and it was specifically about the women. And the name of the book says, "Representing Woman." And for her, that was - that's been her lifelong, you know...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WILLIAMS: ...goal and commitment. And so, you know, I was really happy to be able to share that with her. And then it just made sense to me. OK, here I am, this young lady who has these ideas. And as long they're put together correctly and as long as they are organized and they're thoughtful, then she will support you. But, you know, she didn't, you know, take everyone under the wing. So I feel really, really blessed that I was able to forge that relationship with her.

CONAN: Roger Wilkins, I have to ask you, we mentioned at the beginning that when she tried to go to Barnard, she got a scholarship, not only was there a quota, but the quota was two.

Prof. WILKINS: Right.

CONAN: She...

Prof. WILKINS: Well, it was in the late - it was like 1938, or something like that.

CONAN: Yeah. And lived long enough to see an African-American in the White House.

Prof. WILKINS: Right.

CONAN: Did you talk to her about that?

Prof. WILKINS: I talked to her about lots of things. But I just - the - what she really would talk about over and over and over again was what you just heard: Keep on doing it. Figure out what you want to do.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.

Prof. WILKINS: Never stop. And Jesse's - Jesse Jackson summed it up. Somebody said, Jesse, what is - what does Dorothy do? And Jesse looked at this person and said: Dorothy be's(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WILKINS: And that's right. As long as she was here, she was a force. She was - she be's here to move us ahead. That was - it was - in the full sentence.

CONAN: Roger...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Go ahead. Go ahead.

CONAN: I'm sorry.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Go ahead.

CONAN: Blanche, if you could make it quick. We just have a few seconds.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Someone just had asked, you know, how do I fit, you know, into her legacy? And I think that's a really big question for us to ask. How do we fit into her legacy? We do that by walking in our own shoes, but being mindful of who bought those shoes.

CONAN: Blanche Williams, founder of National Black Women's Town Hall, Incorporated, former host of "Greatness by Design" on Sirius XM satellite radio, with us today on the line from Florida. Thanks very much for your time.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

CONAN: And Roger Wilkins, here with us in Studio 3A, the author of "Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism." Roger, always a delight to have to have you on the program.

Prof. WILKINS: Thanks, Neal. I enjoyed being here.

CONAN: We put together a photo slideshow of Dorothy Height through the years. You can find that at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, Ask Amy's Amy Dickinson on the conversation: talking with your elderly parent about moving to a nursing home or assisted living facility. Join us for that.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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