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Transcript: Civil Rights Activist Dorothy Height Remembers Martin Luther King

Dorothy Height is one of the most influential civil rights activists in the United States. For more than 50 years, she has been president of the National Council of Negro Women, a non-profit organization whose mission is to advance the opportunities and quality of life for African American women and their families. Ms. Height, now 92, has been witness to some of the most ground-breaking events in civil rights history. One of her good friends and associates was Martin Luther King, Jr. Dorothy Height spoke with VOA’s Robin Rupli about meeting him for the first time when he was 15 and one of the “gifted students” at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dorothy Height: And he was like any other 15-year-old in the sense that he was trying to make up his mind whether he wanted to go into law, into medicine or education or the ministry. And he talked about this. And it was very significant that 10 years later he had been to college, the seminary and married and Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man and he came to life. So that in 10 years I saw him move from being a teenager to the point where he had been all the way through and he took hold -- and you know the rest of the story.

Robin Rupli: When you met him and he was such a young man, did you have any particular impression of him that he would go on to do such remarkable things?

DH: “There was no way you could have talked to him at 15 and realized the depth of his thinking and how he was evaluating what he wanted to do. I had no idea he would be what he was when. I would simply have to say and each of us said afterwards, ‘He’s a remarkable young man.’ Such a pleasure talking with him and the depth of his willingness to talk and interest in talking with adults.

RR: I’d like to talk a bit about the “I Have A Dream” speech and the March on Washington. You were a pivotal player during that march. You worked quietly in the background and had quite a bit to do with Dr. King being able to recite his entire speech. Can you tell me about that?

DH: It was two-fold. One, was I was with a group of women who objected to the fact that they did not have a woman speaker. The only female voice heard that wonderful day was that of Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer. And that was a disappointment because we were not able to get the program turned around so we could have a woman speaker. But, in addition, there was considerable discussion about having seven minutes per speaker and there was a limit in what they would do. And I made the case for Dr. King to be the last speaker. And of course you know he went longer than seven minutes. But everybody agreed to that at the end.”

RR: So it didn’t have to do with him as an individual, cutting him short…just a matter of time restraints?

DH: They wanted to time it and have everybody have the same amount of time.

RR: After his assassination, how did you – also a very visible proponent for change, carry on Dr. King’s message in your work?

DH: Well I think each of us had a feeling that, particularly in the United Civil Rights Leadership group, we had a feeling that we had to re-double our efforts. We saw him cut down right in the middle of what he was doing. And we felt that we wanted to make sure that it was clear that the dream was not killed, but it was the dreamer. That’s the way we felt about it.

RR: In schools today, have you observed that the message of Dr. Martin Luther King is still being conveyed as strongly as when he was alive…or is he viewed more as a historical icon now?

DH: I think that whole feeling of understanding what the struggle is and what the struggle has to be is . . . For, me and many people who heard Dr. King think of the March on Washington even as much as Dr. King’s speech. Whereas Dr. King, himself, was focused on changing the system and improving conditions and trying to set this country right. And I think all of that, the best thinking people that we can find, need to keep it wide open. Because we still have a long way to go.”

RR: Dorothy Height, thank you very much.

DH: Thank you.

RR: I’ve been speaking with Dorothy Height – activist, author and President of the National Council of Negro Women. This is Robin Rupli.