height, woman
Dorothy Height poses in front of her portrait inside the "Freedom's Sisters" exhibition at the Cincinnati Museum Center in 2008. (David Kohl/AP/Shutterstock)

Black History Month Profiles: Dorothy Height, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Activist

During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers such as Dorothy Height who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn more about important figures.

Born: March 24, 1912, Richmond, Virginia
Died: April 20, 2010, Washington, D.C.
Best known for: Her role fighting racism and sexism during the Civil Rights movements, and being one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s key advisers — the only woman on the platform during his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Dorothy Height at the Council of Negro Women 1993 Reunion in Washington, D.C.
(James M. Kelly/Shutterstock)

Dorothy Height was an activist who fought against racism and sexism since she was a teenager, actively participating in numerous anti-lynching campaigns. Height would go on to work with the YWCA, the National Council of Negro Women and activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis.

Height was born in 1912 in Richmond, Virginia to a building contractor and a nurse. She moved with her family to Rankin, Pennsylvania when she was a child and attended integrated schools. When she was in high school, Height was involved in activism and took part in anti-lynching campaigns. She was a talented orator and won a national oratory competition, earning her a college scholarship.

She was accepted to Barnard College, but had her acceptance revoked when the school told her it had already met its quota for Black students. She then applied to New York University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in psychology.

Height began her professional career as a social worker. In 1937, she joined the staff of the YWCA in Harlem. There, she met the founder of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) Mary McLeod Bethune, who visited the YWCA with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Height began working closely with Bethune and volunteering with the NCNW.

At the YWCA, Height worked to integrate all of its centers. In 1957, Height became the president of the NCNW. Under her, the NCNW offered job training, set up a school breakfast program in Mississippi, registered voters and worked to ensure African Americans were counted in the Census. In 1965, Height established the Center for Racial Justice at the YWCA and headed it until 1977 when she left the organization.

Because of her involvement at the YWCA and NCNW, Height soon began working with major figures in the Civil Rights Movement, including King, Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and James Farmer. She was also one of the organizers for the March on Washington in 1963. She was the only woman on the platform when King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, but was not invited to speak that day, despite her important role and oratory skills.

In her memoir, Height later wrote that the March on Washington was an awakening to her. She realized organizers said they’d included women, but Mahalia Jackson, who sang the national anthem was the only woman whose voice was actually heard that day.

“They were happy to include women in the human family, but there was no question as to who headed the household!” she wrote.

In the 1980s, Height led African American Women for Reproductive Rights, a pro-choice group and while still working with the NCNW. In 1989, she organized the first Black Family Reunion with the NCNW, a three-day cultural event for Black Americans that still occurs annually today. She retired as the group’s president in the ’90s but remained on the board until her death in 2010.

Height earned various recognitions for her life’s work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. For her 90th birthday in 2002, Height held a celebration fundraiser for the NCNW, which was attended by celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Don King. In 2004, former President Bush awarded Height the Congressional Gold Medal.

Height died in 2010 at the age of 98. In mourning Height, former President Obama called her the “godmother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

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