NPR host Michel Martin (lower left), along with Tell Me More staffers Teshima Walker and Jennifer Longmire-Wright (upper left, right), pose with the late Dorothy Height at her Washington, D.C., offices in Novermber 2008.
By Michel Martin
I was on my way into the office when I heard the sad news that Dorothy Height had died.
I won’t lie to you; I always knew she was “important.” I knew she was always in all the pictures of the big figures in the civil rights movement -- the big six as it were. And I had enjoyed the Black Family Reunion, a get together held every year on the National Mall, and had even helped a friend of mine stuff envelopes for an event that my friend was helping Height’s organization, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), put on. I knew that the building that houses the NCNW was the first building owned by African Americans on Pennsylvania Avenue, a building which the organization now owns free and clear and which is on the National Historic Register.
But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I actually understood what it was that she actually did and had done, and this because my friend Sabrina, gave me a copy of her memoir Open Wide the Freedom Gates.
Think about this: after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, at the height of the civil rights movement, she helped organize teams of women of different races and faiths to get together on Wednesdays in Mississippi to help facilitate communication. Now that sounds quaint and PC, doesn’t it? But think about a time when few women earned their own pay, when people were literally being killed for organizing interracial get-togethers, when many people would refuse to serve food to such a group or allow such a group to meet.
When you put it that way, and think about the fact that Dorothy Height was talking about things like the relationship between opportunity for women and for minorities at a time when talking about women’s rights was thought to have been a strategy to actually STOP the civil rights bill (true story), then you get a sense of what she was up against and did. And that was just one project.
She was such an elegant lady. And that’s another thing that sounds very quaint and PC. But think about her being elegant and insisting on elegance at a time when many people thought it beneath them to address a black woman as Miss or Mrs. I am thinking about a passage in the memoir of Amb Swanee Hunt, one of oil magnate Howard Hunt’s 10 children, where she describes being literally screamed at by one of her aunts when the aunt overheard her addressing her black nanny as “Ma’am.”
Quiet courage. A small step taken every day. She was still working until she went into the hospital in March. During the presidential campaign she was one of the organizers of a weekly conference call of African-American activists of both political parties who kept in touch with each other to be sure that the interests of African-Americans were kept present and that lines of communication remained open. And we had a chance to visit with her a day or so after the election.
Read the memoir if you have time. I am glad I did.
Dorothy Height Was A Lady
Teshima Walker, here.
(Thanks to TMM producer Lee Hill for recovering the photo above.)
When we visited with civil rights pioneer Dorothy Height I remember that her office was beautifully decorated and hot. She had pictures and plaques. Her space was colorful, particularly noticeable was red – one of the key colors of her beloved sorority, Delta Sigma Theta (she served as the organization's 10th national president). She had a blanket covering her legs and ankles.
Meanwhile, I was sweating. I chose to wear a blue denim suit (lycra was involved). It's one of my favorites: the skirt has three pleats at the tail; and I wore a lapel pin with freedom fighter Sojourner Truth's face on it. I also put on red lipstick. It makes my lips itch, twitch and burn but I sucked it up. I wanted Dr. Height to know that I took care to meet her that day.
She always let it be known that she took care of her appearance and this day would not be any different. She was regal in her beautiful purple suit, and of course a matching chapeau. Always dignified, always a lady.
“Lady.” Now that’s a tag not always affixed to Black women (though they have routinely been called a number of other things). A lady is refined, polite and well-spoken. A woman is an adult female person. Read my difference and remember this is my distinction, only.
Dr. Height stood in the room with former President John F. Kennedy when he signed the Equal Pay Act. She worked with several presidents and first ladies to help them understand the plight of the working poor and underserved. She made service seem natural and even effortless. And she was loving as she did it.
She was a lady.