Passing of Dorothy Height: What Future for Civil Rights Movement?

Article excerpt

Internecine fighting and the passing of icons like Dorothy Height and Benjamin Hooks indicate a civil rights movement unmoored from its past. Its search for relevance is coming to a head.

Known for her colorful hats and regal air, Dorothy Height stood on podiums with Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. John Lewis, and spoke at the Million Man March. Called a "national treasure" for her role in the civil rights movement, Ms. Height died Tuesday at age 98.

Coming a week after the death of former NAACP president Benjamin Hooks, Height's passing is part of a wrenching generational shift in a civil rights movement fighting to stay relevant in an America that has elected its first black president.

But as those who faced police batons and fire hoses fade from the scene and groups like Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference face internal coups, there is also hope for a new generation of black activists to influence popularly elected black leaders like Barack Obama in the fight against what one political scientist calls America's "residual racism."

"When your organization is not perceived as the National Council of Negro Women but as a group of old black ladies, it makes the organization a bit of an anachronism," says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta and expert on African American politics. "But given the fact that there's still residual racism and structural inequality, protest organizations can in many ways shine light on these issues in ways that even black elected officials still often can't."

Dream of a 'colorless society'

Ms. Height's dream was "freedom in a colorless society."

In some ways, that statement cuts to the core of the civil rights movement's struggles since Congress passed laws against racial discrimination in the 1960s. Despite concerns about racism rearing up around the tea party movement, for example, there is simply less apparent inequality in the United States for protest groups to coalesce around.

At the same time, young black politicians like Obama, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker have challenged older figures such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Mr. Lewis in recent years, winning elections on "post-racial" platforms.

"The new politicians have based their appeal on anything but race," wrote Paul Harris of the British newspaper the Observer before Obama's election. …