Saturday, October 4, 2003

Height always had faith that society can change

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] At 91, Dorothy Height continues to work every day in her Washington office.
(Getty Images photo)
There's no bitterness in Dorothy Height's voice, and none in her recently published memoir.

Not even when she's discussing the lynchings she protested when she was a young woman in Harlem, or the college she was refused admittance to because of her race, or the YWCA that refused to let her swim in its pool.

"I guess it was the fact that I already had a faith, and I did not allow things to tear me down," she says. "If you get bitter, you can't use all your talents."

All her life, Height, 91, has been using her talents to make an indelible mark on civil rights history.

"She's one of those great people upon whose shoulders many young people stand today," said the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of Greater New Light Baptist Church in Avondale and a national figure in the civil rights movement.

While male leaders dominated the civil-rights movement in the 1960s - and received most of the media attention - Height played a key role. She helped plan the 1963 March on Washington and was slightly more than an arm's length away when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

She was only 11 when, in her hometown of Rankin, Pa., she volunteered to read Bible stories to white youngsters at the Rankin Christian Center, which made its programs available to blacks only on "Negro Days."

She was 12 when a Pittsburgh YWCA turned her away from its swimming pool. She never learned to swim, but would become a major force in integrating the national organization. Starting in 1937, she rose through the Y's ranks, leading campaigns to eradicate discrimination in the Y and society at large, eventually landing a position on the Y's national board. She formed lifelong friendships with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and social activist Mary McLeod Bethune.

Height succeeded Bethune as president of the National Council of Negro Women in 1957. For the next four decades, she used the post to emphasize justice for black women and to strengthen black families.

As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, she organized voter registration in the South and helped lead "Wednesdays in Mississippi," which brought Southern and Northern white and black women together to ease racial tensions and prevent violence.

"Once we started, there were (whites) in Mississippi and in the North who wanted to be involved," Height says. "All they needed was somebody to put something together."

Organizing has always been her strength.

In 1986 Height and the National Council of Negro Women created the Black Family Reunion, an event dedicated to history, tradition and culture. Cincinnati has hosted a Midwest Black Family Reunion annually since 1988.

Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble became the event's first full sponsor.

"The passion Dorothy had and has for building strong families - I just think she's a wonderful person and a great role model," says Bob Wehling, whom Height and others approached to secure the P&G sponsorship. Wehling retired two years ago as P&G's global marketing officer. "She's a national treasure," he says.

Height received the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, from President Clinton in 1994. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.

" "I wish more young people could be as committed as she is," Shuttlesworth said.

She's been on tour promoting her recently published book, Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir (Public Affairs; $26).

Height says she'd like to be remembered "as someone who set a purpose for life and tried to fulfill it, and as a person of faith who tried to create a just society."


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