By Dr. Boyce Watkins, Syracuse University
Dorothy Height was born on the same day as my father (March 24). I’m not sure if that means anything, but it sure feels significant to me. Like my father, Height has had a dramatic influence on how I see the world, and what it means to have courage. She was accepted to Barnard College (the sister school for Columbia University), but not allowed to attend the school because they’d already accepted their two Black students for the year. When my goddaughter takes it for granted that she attends Barnard today, I remind her of the struggles of Dorothy Height.
Barnard eventually apologized to Height for not admitting her to the university, but some apologies come entirely too late. By the age of 68, Dorothy had reached retirement age: too old to attend Barnard, but still young and restless in her tireless quest for social justice. Her journey for justice would continue another 30 years after the 1980 apology by the university, nearly as long as the life of Jesus. This reminds us that it’s never too late for us to start changing the world, and the best time to start that process is now.
Representing the beauty of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc, Height served as president of the organization for over a decade. She also advised kings and queens in America, standing next to Dr. Martin Luther King in addition to Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson. She reminded Eisenhower that black kids should be allowed to attend the same schools as whites, and helped President Johnson understand that black women deserve to serve at the highest levels of government. Sadly enough, she was the only woman among the big six Figures in the Civil Rights Movement, which reminds us that part of our journey on the path to equality means that we must be willing to honestly look at ourselves in the mirror. Even 40 years after the epic struggle of Height, King and others, we still find that only men are usually invited to the table of black leadership. This has got to change, for hypocrisy should not have a workspace in the house of black liberation.
The “godmother of the women’s movement” never wasted a second on her quest to make the black family stronger. She sacrificed her own opportunity to marry and have children to open the door for other women to have happy families of their own. As one of the sponsors of the Black Family Reunion, an event that takes place in Washington DC, Height has helped strengthen one of the most important institutions within the African American community.
Height’s affiliation with The National Council for Negro Women is nothing short of legendary. Chairing the organization for 50 years, Height helped shape the vision and inspiration for millions of women, their children and their grandchildren. She was even primed to head to the White House with Al Sharpton, Marc Morial and Ben Jealous this year to meet with President Obama. Only a snow storm of historic proportions could slow down the 98-year old who never stopped creating storms of her own.
There is no other Dorothy Height, and I wonder if there ever will be. Dorothy reminds us that even long lives are far too short, and that the time for action is now. There is a little bit of Dorothy inside all of us and we must insist upon carrying the torch.
Many organizations poured in their condolences this week when the news of Dr. Height’s death was announced. President Obama released the following statement:
Michelle and I were deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Dorothy Height – the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement and a hero to so many Americans. Ever since she was denied entrance to college because the incoming class had already met its quota of two African American women, Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality. She led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, and served as the only woman at the highest level of the Civil Rights Movement – witnessing every march and milestone along the way. And even in the final weeks of her life a time when anyone else would have enjoyed their well-earned rest ‘Dr. Height continued her fight to make our nation a more open and inclusive place for people of every race, gender, background and faith. Michelle and I offer our condolences to all those who knew and loved Dr. Height and all those whose lives she touched.