Sunday, October 5, 2003

Freedom Center honors pioneers

Dorothy Height, RFK Center receive awards

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

About 1,000 people looked on Saturday at a black-tie gala downtown as civil rights pioneer Dorothy Height and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights became the third and fourth recipients of the International Freedom Conductor Award.

Height and Kennedy
Dorothy Height, left, talks with Ethel Kennedy before the International Freedom Conductor Awards were presented at the Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
"As I look at my own history and what people like Harriet Tubman did, it makes me very humble,'' Height said just before receiving her honor at the Albert B. Sabin Convention Center. "Whatever tasks I've had seem small compared to what others have done. I've been on a struggle that is not yet over.''

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center presents the awards, which it has modeled after the Nobel Peace Prize, to honor those whose deeds reflect the courage of Underground Railroad conductors - people who helped fleeing slaves find freedom in the years before the Civil War.

The Freedom Center will be the centerpiece of Cincinnati's revitalized riverfront when it opens next summer. About $97 million has been raised toward its $110 million capital campaign goal.

As the civil rights movement pushed forward in the 1960s, Height worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph and others.

"It's really important that Dorothy Height always be acknowledged," said Susan Taylor, editorial director of Essence magazine, "because when we look at the civil rights movement, we always focus on the men. But Dorothy Height was right there ... sitting at the table, the only woman, very dignified, very brilliant and very powerful."

PBS video and text of Q&A with Dorothy I. Height
RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Taylor presented the award to Height, 91, who is president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women, a group she led for 41 years. At NCNW, she started the Black Family Reunion, an annual event that focuses on the history, culture and tradition of the black family. She also worked to eliminate discrimination through her longtime association with the YWCA.

Taylor, in an interview before the award presentation, said Height continues working for causes she believes in. In the mid-1990s, Height enlisted her help in raising funds to buy a building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to serve as NCNW headquarters. The headquarters, dedicated to Height earlier this year, is the only African American-owned building between the White House and the Capitol.

Quincy Jones, the Grammy-, Emmy- and Academy Award-winning producer and longtime friend of the Kennedy family, presented the award to the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights. The organization supports the work of RFK Human Rights Award laureates striving for social justice around the world. Accepting on behalf of the center were Ethel Kennedy, RFK's widow, and Gibson Kumai Kuria of Kenya.

"I love it when there is a team, a collaborative effort, trying to get something serious done,'' Jones said of the effort to build the museum. He is an honorary board member.

The 56-year-old Kuria, a lawyer, is the Kennedy center's 1988 laureate. His opposition to the repressive regime of President Daniel arap Moi led to Kuria being arrested and spending two years in exile. But he continued his work promoting constitutional and legal reform and assisting victims of human rights abuses in Kenya.

"Working with the RFK Center, we have turned around the politics," Kuria said in an interview shortly after his arrival in Cincinnati.

A new Kenyan president took power peacefully late last year. "As a country we have embarked on many democratic endeavors,'' Kuria added. "We hope in a year or two we have a constitution that really protects human rights."

The courage of Kuria parallels that of Underground Railroad conductors, said Todd Howland, director of the human rights center. The center has named 31 laureates worldwide since 1984.

"In many ways, the center for human rights is the combination of our laureates," Howland said. "They have an issue they work on, and that's an issue we work on. "

Civil rights icon Rosa Parks received the first Freedom Conductor award in 1998. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu was honored in 2000.


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