Civil Rights Elder Sees Dream Come True

Dorothy Height

hide captionIn 2004, Dorothy Height was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by Congress.

Jennifer Longmire

Dorothy Height began her civil rights career during the Great Depression. Since then, Height has become one of the country's most notable champions of equal rights. Now, at 96 years old, Height reflects on the election of the country's first African American president.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch. It's the part of the program where we speak with distinguished elders from many walks of life hoping they'll share some of their wisdom with us. Today our guest is a civil rights pioneer who, like many Americans, feels a unique sense of pride at this historic moment.

Dr. Dorothy Height began a lifetime of activism during the Great Depression, a time when the simple right to vote free of the fear of violence seemed like an impossible dream for many African-Americans. And at the of 96, she is still going to the office just about every day trying to further the cause of equal rights for all Americans. She's serving as chair and president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women. She was kind enough to receive us at her office on historic Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday. I asked her where she was and what she was doing when she found out that Barack Obama had been elected president.

Dr. DOROTHY HEIGHT (President Emerita, National Council of Negro Women): Well, at that time, I happened to be here in this building at the National Council of Negro Women, part of a group gathered under the Coalition for Black Civil Participation, and they had been working all day monitoring and answering calls all across the country if there were any experiences people had that were negative, or if they were discouraged and the like. And then after that we all watched the television and followed it together.

And it was very exciting because of the young people, there were older people, there were black and white, but all of them had been working to help secure the vote. You see, we realized we had not only to get the vote but we had to protect the vote. And so that's what they were doing. But I cannot even describe to you what happened when that final word came over. The group just exploded. Everybody was so excited, and it was hard to believe that we all lived through this evening.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that because you have been working in this field since you were a very young woman. I mean, really, your entire adult life. Since your early 20s you've been an activist. Did you believe this day would come in your lifetime?

Dr. HEIGHT: Well, you know, you had to have faith and had to believe. And I believed that it would come. I knew it would be a long ways over, but I'm so glad I lived to see it. Actually, I got started back when I was in my late teens, and I had moved from Pennsylvania to Harlem and when Ada Mitchell(ph) and I organized a youth committee against lynching and the poll tax(ph). So I've been working on trying to get the votes right since I was about 19.

And I think having the experience working also in the civil rights movement, where so much of our time was focused on just getting the right to vote, and then last night, to be able to witness people exercising that vote at the level they did was very, very exciting.

MARTIN: The fact is, we did speak to some people who've been in the trenches with you. For example - I don't think it's wrong to call his name - Ambassador Andy Young.

Dr. HEIGHT: Yeah.

MARTIN: On our program we talked about this issue a couple of months ago, and he said, look, I just don't believe it's going to happen. I just don't believe the country is ready. He all but implied that the vote would be stolen. He almost said it.

Dr. HEIGHT: Well, you know, I guess I got to - my faith was renewed working for 33 years with the YWCA of the United States. And I went there as a secretary or a staffer or something related to interracial education. After 33 years, I retired as a director of the Center for Racial Justice, and I split(ph) this an organization, that from 1946 really set out to open its services to all women, regardless of race or with full regard for race, and so I saw the way an organization that was founded by white, Protestant women that now is very inclusive, and I was a part of that development.

When the YWCA in 1946 adopted an interracial charter, that was ahead of the Supreme Court's decision on Brown versus the Board of Education, so that in a sense I had already the experience. And I listened to people when they kept saying - well, some people, particularly white people, will say this but they won't go in. I also know that I worked with many white women who took a strong stand but they didn't discuss it at home because their husbands didn't agree with them, but they worked hard to see that the YWCA was integrated, as they called it. And today, the YWCA has Empower Women and Eliminate Racism as its slogan. And I think that made me know that there are many people who know that this is right to do and that they were willing to do it, but they didn't necessarily announce it.

MARTIN: I remember that, reading in your memoir how your organization, the YWCA, was one of the first - and some precursor organizations were among the first to have integrated meetings, and how dangerous it was for some of these women to participate.

Dr. HEIGHT: At that time there were - when we had meetings, sometimes we were talking about the klan. Sometimes we found that we were denied services that we had been promised when they realized fully what it meant that we would be women of different races. But you know, I found that were strong women in all racial groups, and I think that's what Barack Obama has shown us. There are people in every group who know what is right and who want to move, and they just need some kind of direction and some kind of feeling that other people are with them. I remember Dr. Mayo(ph) saying, I hear people say the time isn't right. And he said, but if it isn't right then it's your job to ripen the time, and that's the way I feel about it.

MARTIN: We're going to take a short break, and when we return we're going to continue our conversation with Dr. Dorothy Height. That's coming up next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, educator and activist Geoffrey Canada tells us what he believes. It's the latest in our This I Believe essay series.

But we're going to continue now our special Wisdom Watch conversation with Dorothy Height, chair and president emirita of The National Council of Negro Women. We're visiting with her at her offices in Washington, D.C. We're talking about President-elect Barack Obama's historic win.

Dr. Height, I want to talk with you about the earlier dynamic in the course of the election, between first Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the White House, and then this whole question of Sarah Palin on the Republican ticket. There are a lot of people who are proud of Barack Obama, but they still feel that there is an element of sexism that's affecting the chances of women to take full leadership. What's your take on that?

Dr. HEIGHT: Well, I agree that's true. I still think it is. As you recall, I was a part of the strategy group in the civil rights movement, which even the press called The Big Six. And I always laughed because I said, I think since I was the one woman in the group, they didn't count me, so that's how it got to be six, because actually we were seven.

And I think that there is a kind of way that we cannot deny the sexism, and I was very proud that Hillary Clinton would step up. I've known her 30 years, and that she would step up and she would open the way. And I think the way this thing has gone seems to me almost to be providential because there's no way now that we cannot recognize that there are strong women who have the capacity.

Other countries - Liberia, Israel, England - so many countries had women leaders, and I think that we have to look at that because yes, there's an element of sexism and that we have to work at it. And I'm so glad that things are working this way because I think Obama will be an example to the whole world.

MARTIN: Was there ever any feeling of one group rising at the expense of another? I mean, we were there in Denver, as were you, at the Democratic National Convention. There was a lot of grieving there among many women who had supported Senator Clinton who felt that it was just not fair that someone with her credentials did not prevail in the end, even though there are obviously people - many people very, very proud. There are those who felt that in a way this race pitted two groups who'd been outsiders against each other.

Dr. HEIGHT: Well, I think I would take the tip from Hillary Clinton herself. I think the fact that she said to them, I want you to give your full support, and that's what she did for Barack Obama. She gave her full support and she let it be known that way. And I think this is a time when we cannot say which one is hurting the most. We have to take one at a time, and I think here we are, and I think we'll move forward.

MARTIN: What about Sarah Palin? Any thoughts?

Dr. HEIGHT: I don't know much about her. I didn't have much of a sense of her, but I did know Hillary, and I know the strength that she brings to the whole task. And I think she was a good example for women.

MARTIN: What role do you think civil rights organizations have now?

Dr. HEIGHT: Well, there's still a lot of unfinished business. Right now you have going across the country a whole effort to destroy affirmative action. In other words, we're finding that people are using civil rights in a negative way, and they're calling it, this is a civil right. In a sense, these bills that are being introduced are really anti-civil rights, and they just use the term civil right in order to fool people and make them vote.

MARTIN: Are you speaking about Ward Connerly and some of his efforts to reverse affirmative action...

Dr. HEIGHT: Yes, Connerly has gone into several states, and he has does this in a misleading way, and I think people ought to be alert to it and realize that if you vote for what he is talking about, you're cutting back something that got started during the days of Lyndon Johnson and was a part of the whole civil rights effort. It is not a preference. It is a way of saying, those who have been denied should be given an opportunity to be sought in (ph) so they can move ahead.

MARTIN: There are those who would argue, though, that - to be blunt about it - that Barack Obama takes these so-called excuses off the table. People look at that, and they say, look at Barack Obama in the White House. And they say, what discrimination? What could they possibly - what barriers?

Dr. HEIGHT: Yes. I think they will, but I would hope that they would also say to themselves, we need to look at who has the opportunities. We need to look at - Obama himself pointed that to us, that you can't have a flourishing Wall Street and a destroyed Main Street. He could have also said, I'm working for the middle class, but we still have poverty. And we cannot divide up like that. We cannot say who's hurting the most. We have to make sure they be dealing with everyone.

I have been working since my teenage days when I did an oration and won my college scholarship on the Constitution of the United States. I chose the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. And I looked and realized, here, now, at this age, I'm still working to make the 14th amendment and its promise of equal justice under law, making it real for everybody. That's what you have to do.

MARTIN: Is there anything that you fear about an Obama presidency, about having an African-American - the first African-American in the White House?

Dr. HEIGHT: I suppose it's not a real fear. It's a hope that we will not take it for granted, that now we have achieved and all of our problems are answered. I think we will (unintelligible), as he did, as he said, I will be president of all the people. And by that he meant that he will work for all of us and that we all have to realize that there is unfinished business in civil rights.

It will - we don't need the marches that we had in the past. 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. So that I think it opens up a new way for us to look at our community.

And one thing, I go down now to Deep South and Mississippi and places, where during the '60s, we moved with fear. I go down now and people are so welcoming that I forget what part of the country I'm in. And I think the people who are saying, we have no problem, have the biggest problem, that they really need to see how we can all work together and recognize that we need each other and see how we can really make this a society in which a person is judged, as Dr. Hayes(ph) said, on the basis of their character and what they do rather than on color of their skin or the language which they speak or their sexual preference, or any of those things.

MARTIN: Since you were a young woman yourself, you've been famous when you work with young people. Do you have any wisdom to share, perhaps, to a young Dorothy Height who might be listening to us?

Dr. 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 seen, you are still better off than any 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.

And I was so excited to hear President-elect Obama, like they call him now, to hear him say that he needed our help. And I think he does. And we need it not by thinking just of what we want, but how can we help achieve the kind of roles that he has said. Because when you do that and we're for something bigger than yourself, there's no way you can help but grow, and that will help to prepare you for the future.

MARTIN: And finally, you are famous for your hats - for your fabulous hats. You happen to be wearing a fabulous, purple chapeau with a beautiful bow and even a fetching feather. Do you have something special picked out for the inauguration?

Dr. HEIGHT: Well, I don't have, but I have a very (unintelligible) and I will let her know what I plan to wear, and she always comes through. She knows I love hats. I was the last person to give them up when they went out of style, and I was among the first when I picked them up again. When I had some pictures the other day, someone looked at them, she said, were you at a hat on(ph) then? I said, yes, I did.

MARTIN: What do you recommend for Michelle Obama? Do you think she should wear a hat to the inauguration?

Dr. HEIGHT: Well, she doesn't seem to be a hat person. But I think she looks beautiful, and I'm so glad, and I think it will be a blessing to us to have a woman like her in the White House. I'm so proud of her.

MARTIN: Dr. Dorothy Height is the chair and president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women. She's also the chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Executive Committee. She was kind enough to speak with us from her office on historic Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., just around corner from the White House. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. HEIGHT: Thank you. Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: We've heard from civil rights pioneers Dorothy Height, Myrlie Evers-Williams and the Reverend Jesse Jackson about what Barack Obama's election means to them. Now we want to hear what it means to you. Has this election changed how you view this country? Your neighbors, perhaps, even yourself? To tell us more, please call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522, or go the Tell Me More page at npr.org and blog it out.

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