The Legacy Of Civil Rights Pioneer Dorothy Height

Legendary civil rights leader Dorothy Height died Tuesday at the age of 98. Melissa Block talks to Alexis Herman, the first African-American to lead the Department of Labor, about Height's impact on the civil rights movement and women's rights movement.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Dorothy Height liked to say if the times aren't ripe, you have to ripen the times. The longtime civil rights leader died today here in Washington. She was 98. In a statement, President Obama praised Height as the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans. She led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, taking on issues from voting rights to school desegregation to pay equity for women.

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman first met Dorothy Height 38 years ago. Ms. Herman is now co-chair of the committee helping run the National Council of Negro Woman, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Former Secretary ALEXIS HERMAN (Department of Labor): Thank you for inviting me to be with you today.

BLOCK: How would you say that Dorothy Height viewed the connection between women's rights and the fight for racial equality?

Former Sec. HERMAN: The connection for her was one that was a very strong and, at the same time, simplistic one. She would often say: I cannot separate what it means to be female and to have the burdens of sexism any more than I can separate out what it means to be a daughter of slave parents. And she happened to be the only woman who literally had her feet planted firmly at the leadership level in both movements.

BLOCK: Dorothy Height was seated on the platform with Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial when he gave his "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963, and she talked about women pushing at the time for a woman to be speaking at that gathering, at the march on Washington. That did not happen. Mahalia Jackson sang, but no women spoke. And I'm sure that that must have been a frustration for her.

Former Sec. HERMAN: Well, it was a part of what she considered to be really the ongoing struggle to open up the doors for women. But she loves to take credit for the fact that were it not for that push, Martin Luther King may not have been placed so strategically as the last speaker that day because she was the one who said a powerful voice such as Martin's needed to be the one to close it out. She was the champion for Martin Luther King against great odds, I might add.

BLOCK: Let's take a listen to some tape of Dorothy Height from an interview on NPR in 2003, and she was talking about what the National Council of Negro Women did the day after the march on Washington.

Ms. DOROTHY HEIGHT (National Council of Negro Women): I think all of us were so inspired and uplifted that with a new sense, we really took on the issue of women and the quest for equality because we felt that women have made a contribution through history.

BLOCK: So the very next day, she said they had a meeting.

Former Sec. HERMAN: That meeting became the cradle for much of what happened to not only to spur on what became the modern women's day movement but certainly to inspire African-American women to understand that they had to pick up the cause of women's rights.

BLOCK: Do you think Dorothy Height worried in later years about a sense of complacency, maybe, that has replaced the passion of the early days of the civil rights movement?

Former Sec. HERMAN: I don't think she worried so much about a sense of complacency as much as she worried about the fact that we simply don't have the same appreciation for what it means to struggle, to make progress and to give back in terms of a life of service. She used to always say no matter how far we go, we have to lift others as we climb and always do the work to open even wider the doors of opportunity.

BLOCK: Alexis Herman, it's good of you to talk with us. Thanks so much.

Former Sec. HERMAN: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, remembering her long-time friend and colleague, the civil rights activist Dorothy Height, who died today at age 98.

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