We’ve Lost a Leader for Justice

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    A daughter of Virginia, Dorothy Height, was laid to rest today. Born in 1912 in Richmond, Dr. Height, after moving with her family to Pennsylvania, was admitted to Barnard College after winning a four-year Elks scholarship in an oratory contest. She was denied the right to register for classes because the college had a policy of admitting only two black students each year. She didn’t give up. Instead, she went to New York University with her Barnard letter of acceptance.

    Height ended up attending New York University, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. Dr. Height first worked as a caseworker for the welfare department in New York City. Later, she became active in the YWCA. In 1957, she was named president of the National Council of Negro Women, a position she held for forty years.

    Height was at the side of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington in 1963. During the 1960’s, Height organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” meetings that brought together black and white women to work for peaceful change.

    At her funeral mass, held today at the National Cathedral in Washington, President Obama said, “The lesson she would want us to leave with today – a lesson she lived out each and every day – is that we can all be first in service We can all be drum majors for a righteous cause. So let us live out that lesson.”  

    Dr. Height was immensely important in the fight for civil rights and women’s rights, but it is a tribute to her grace and lack of ego that few Americans today recognize her name. However, her list of accomplishments is long and varied.

    As an executive of the YWCA, she oversaw the integration of its facilities in the 1940’s in areas outside the South. She was a founding leader of the National Women’s Political Caucus. She fought beside the leaders of the civil rights movement to fight lynching in the South, to gain the right to vote for all Americans, and to integrate America’s public facilities – from schools to buses to college classrooms.

    Some have speculated that Dorothy Height remained relatively unknown because she had to fight through her life a double discrimination, as a black and as a woman. I don’t disagree with that.

    After the victories that changed the face of America forever, Dorothy Height finally received her due. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton  in 1994. President George W. Bush awarded her the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.

    Today, the first African-American President of the United States gave a eulogy for Dorothy Height at National Cathedral. She lived to see that dream fulfilled. Indeed, she was an honored guest on the dais as President Obama took the oath of office last January.