Monday, October 6, 2003

Conductors: Height and RFK Center

When we look at the beautiful building that will soon house the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on Cincinnati's riverfront, it is easy to think of it as a memorial to a piece of history - a history that dates back to long before we were born. It is easy to slip into thinking of it in terms of slavery, the Civil War and a time so far back that it bears little connection to the way we live today.

When we think that, we should remember Dorothy Height, and come sharply back to reality.

Dorothy Height was honored in Cincinnati Saturday night as one of this year's Freedom Conductors. Height's time is our time. Her story inspires awe, and an understanding that the evils of discrimination are not just part of some long dead history. She participated in almost every major civil rights protest in the past 60 years. She knew the humilation of being told she couldn't eat in a restaurant, swim in a pool or attend a class because she was black. And she never stopped fighting to correct these injustices.

She worked with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary McLeod Bethune and Martin Luther King Jr. In the 1930s she led the integration of the YWCA. In the 1950s she became head of the National Council of Negro Women. In the 1960s she marched with King, and was standing beside him when he delivered his "I have a dream" speech.

The conductor awards are presented annually by the Freedom Center to those who have made significant contributions to freedom and human rights. Past recipients have included Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955, in an act of defiance that became a focal point of the civil rights movement. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu received it in 2000 for helping end the system of aparthied in his country.

This year it went to Height for her lifetime of service, and to the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center, which has worked to end oppression in such places as Haiti, Kenya, China and South Africa.

Dorothy Height is now 91 years old - frail, but still a fierce advocate for freedom. Her life is the reality of the civil rights struggle in America. It is not the history of a far off time, but the modern struggle of our society to come to grips with its own differences.

Conductors: Height and RFK Center
Historical exhibit: Cues concerts
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