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Women's History Profile: Activist Dorothy Height Continues Her Tireless Crusade


At age 93, one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement still works every day from her marble-pillared office on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue just blocks from the U.S. Capitol building.

Dorothy Height -- activist, humanitarian and president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women -- has been fighting for racial equality in America for seven decades. She has been a consultant to every president from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton and has been awarded the country's highest honors.

Dorothy Height has also been an eyewitness to more civil rights history than any other black leader living today.

From the time she was a child in Rankin, Pennsylvania, Ms. Height says she felt it was her mission to help people. An avid learner and gifted student, she entered a national oratory contest that offered a four-year scholarship to Barnard College in New York City. Speaking on the subject of the U.S. Constitution, she won the contest and packed her bags for New York. But her arrival at the school was the first of many instances where she would experience the sting of overt racism.

"I was accepted at Barnard College and was denied admission when I arrived because they had a quota of two (Negroes)," she said. "They did not know that I was not white." Although she had her acceptance papers in hand, "I was turned away."

Before the day was done, Ms. Height applied to and was accepted to New York University, where she would earn her bachelor and masters degrees in four years. Fueled by her commitment to social change, Dorothy Height worked alongside Mary McCloud Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women -- from whom she would ultimately inherit the top position -- and served as advisor on women's issues to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

She met Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was a 15-year-old student still undecided about his career. Ten years later, says Ms. Height, "he became my leader," and she worked beside Dr. King throughout the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

While Dr. King's assassination in 1968 was devastating, she says it was also a mobilizing event in the black community. "I think that all of us realized that he was in the middle of something that we were part of…and we couldn't stop there," she says. "Because the dreamer was killed, we did not want to lose the dream. And I think that brought us all together."

Dorothy Height cites the ending of segregation laws in the United States as the greatest change she has witnessed in her years as a civil rights advocate. But she says there is still a long way to go.

"I think the biggest challenge now is that those who went to jail singing 'We Shall Overcome' now need to find that they have economic opportunity…that's what they need," she says. "The laws may change, but they need the economic position to take advantage of."

Dorothy Height is also concerned about the disproportionate number of young black men who find themselves in the U.S. correctional system. An estimated 12% of African American men between the ages of 20 and 34 are in jail or prison, according to a recent Department of Justice report.

She holds the family ultimately responsible. "I think we have to do a better job," she says. "I cherish the fact that, in my day, people didn't hesitate to correct young people." Ms. Height believes that the increased level of violence in today's society leads some parents to be afraid of their children. "It is true that we will pay two or three hundred dollars for sneakers," she says, "and then children have no books."

Dorothy Height - known as Dr. Height for the more than 20 honorary degrees she's received -- has also earned the nation's top honors for a lifetime of public service. These include the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and, in 2004, the Congressional Gold Medal for her role as a leading advocate for racial and gender equality.

In 2003, Dr. Height published her memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates, to critical acclaim. And this past June -- 75 years after turning her away -- Barnard College made Dorothy Height an honorary alumna, recognizing her qualifications and acknowledging she had been wrongfully excluded.

When asked if she has plans to retire, Dr. Height says she may retire from a position, but she will never retire from social justice.

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