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Tribute: Dorothy Irene Height – 1912-2010

The passing of venerable Queen Mother Dorothy Height was a great loss to longtime social advocates of the Civil Rights and Black Women’s Movements. The news of her transition, which was not unexpected, caused many of us to pause and mourn the loss of a national treasure … but only briefly. For if ever there was a life to be celebrated, it was the life that was lived by Dorothy Irene Height.

Dr. Height was born in 1912 in Richmond, VA. She traveled north to take advantage of higher education opportunities that, during her lifetime, were far more restricted in the South. Following her graduation from New York University, she began her career as a caseworker for the New York City Department of Welfare. She would, in the true spirit of the profession, remain committed to the values and principles of social work in all her endeavors. But it was her contribution to the Civil Rights Movement that helped to build her legacy and seal her place in history. 

Height’s career as a civil rights activist began when she joined the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in 1937. Height would eventually serve the organization for more than 70 years, nearly 50 in the role as president/chairman. A protégée of Mary McLeod Bethune, Height is credited with inspiring women in the South to fight for their rights and getting involved with the voting rights movement. She was a soft-spoken, elegant woman who exuded power and confidence and served as a tremendous role model for poor, disenfranchised women who were struggling to find their place in society.

In 1957, Height became president of NCNW. The council was a major supporter of the 1963 March on Washington. When Time magazine, in 1963, proclaimed the “Big Five” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement to be Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, James Farmer of  the Congress of Racial Equality, Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Whitney Young of the National Urban League, and James Forman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Height took exception. She insisted upon taking her place, as the representative of NCNW and all Black women, at front and center, along with the male leaders. It was Height who changed the designation of the “Big Five” into the “Big Six.” And for nearly 50 more years, she would continue the fight for freedom and social justice, always remaining in full public view. 

Height was just two years shy of 100. But for most of her 98 years, she committed herself to the service of her people. With dedication and courage she was the epitome of a true “race woman,” one who never forgot where she came from, plotted a clear path for where she was going, and created opportunities for all those hoping to uplift and improve their lives to join her on the journey. What a wonderful life. Thank you, Dr. Height, for your never-ending devotion to our people. And may you rest peacefully in the loving, embracing arms of our ancestors.

Dr. Patricia Reid-Merritt is a professor of social work and Africana studies at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Photo details: Dorothy Height (right) with James Farmer and Whitney Young (photo by Associated Press)

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