It’s possible that what makes me admire Dorothy Height more than anything is the fact that I didn’t know she existed until Google wove her face into its logo recently. As a result, most major newspapers published quick stories about her exemplary life. You could sum up the heart of her work in a sentence: both African-Americans and women have moved much closer to equal status over the past 80 years–the span of her career–thanks in part to Dorothy Height. Yet had you ever heard her name until a couple months ago? Her efforts for social justice were indispensible and exemplary; her humble avoidance of fame was, in a way, just as marvelous, in a world with so many self-important voices clamoring for attention.
There isn’t room here to really cover her accomplishments, but here’s the short list. She was born in Richmond, Virginia, and moved to a steel-town suburb of Pittsburg with her family, where she grew up and graduated from high school in 1929, just as the Great Depression began. Her achievements reach so far back in history that, as a high-schooler in her teens she participated in “anti-lynching” campaigns. Yet she lived long enough to stand on stage with President Obama during his inauguration in 2009–his election was something her own life had helped make possible. After high school she won a scholarship from the Elks and was admitted to Barnard College, but was turned away when she arrived in New York because they had already filled their two allotted positions for Negro students. She took the subway down to New York University, told them her story, and was immediately enrolled, based on her high school transcript, and went on to earn a master’s there in educational psychology. Her entire life is like this: like water finding its way silently, wearing away the obstacles, creating a path for others. She consistently found meaningful, significant ways to improve countless lives with actions and gestures few people would notice. She worked within existing systems, peacefully, without rancor, pulling a lever here, tugging on a string there, making small but crucial things happen without fanfare, and in the process finding her way into routine, administrative positions where she could alter history. Out of college, she took a job the YWCA in Harlem where she began to push for integration. In 1957, Height became president of the National Council of Negro Women and suddenly had the ear of all the great civil rights leaders, invited to sit sat behind Martin Luther King, Jr. on stage as he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Yet it’s typical that, after that speech, she simply went back to her office and did her job. Almost like a Washington bureaucrat, she arrived at her desk every day at the NCNW, where she presided for forty years, on the corridor between the White House and the Capitol, without ever thinking of retirement. “Every struggle has the same concerns at the bottom,” Height said. “Race, color, creed, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, it all matters. We need to go back to the time of the March on Washington. That time in 1963. That coming together of all backgrounds with a fiery sense of righteous indignation.”
Yet her “fiery indignation” prompted her to do distinctly un-fiery things in a compassionate, shrewd and powerful way. Who was aware that she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan? For example, “During the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, she organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” which brought together black and white women from the North and South to create a dialogue of understanding.” While others were getting bloodied in the streets, she was having mixed-race coffee klatches to increase understanding and sympathy between white and black.
When she died in 2010, in her obituary, the New York Times noted some of her typical achievements: Ms. Height instituted a variety of social programs in the Deep South, including the pig bank, in which poor black families were given a pig, a prize commodity. It’s the sort of inglorious, unglamorous gesture, full of justice and love, undertaken by someone thinking only of others, from inside their lives. In the thirties, just as her career began, she campaigned to protect black women who were being hired for brutally poor wages to do housework in what was then called the “slave market.”
Though she shunned the limelight, she was far from forgotten. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. Maya Angelou considered her as important a figure as Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. When she died President Obama called her the “godmother of the civil rights movement.” At her funeral he said, “Dr. Height never cared about who got the credit for the good deeds that she accomplished.”
She’s the perfect model for what we need now in our society: quiet, behind-the-scenes activism, with compassion and understanding for all sides of every issue. Demagogues and those who thrive on conflict hold center stage right now. Dorothy Height shows us another way, the lasting way, to work through our current political and economic stalemate.
Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice.