Cose, Ellis, Newsweek
Byline: Ellis Cose
The legacy of Dorothy Height.
Dorothy Height's name is unknown to most Americans. Yet her death last week at the age of 98 spawned tributes worthy of a saint. President Barack Obama proclaimed her "the godmother of the civil-rights movement." Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an organization that Height chaired for 15 years, declared her "the founding mother of the new American republic."
Obama noted that she led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years and "served as the only woman at the highest level of the civil-rights movement--witnessing every march and milestone along the way." That statement, however, only begins to capture her importance. "She came along at a time," recalls Henderson, "when women were not accepted as leaders." That was clearly on display at the demonstration--the 1963 March on Washington--that gave Martin Luther King Jr. his most memorable moment. As King poetically sketched his American dream, Height shared the platform, but not the limelight. Women could sing--the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson did so gloriously, as did Marian Anderson, the equally great contralto. But the speaking parts were restricted to men.
John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, was then the 23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He shared the podium with King that August day. Asked why Height could not speak, Lewis recalls that the leaders of the march did not think of the National Council of Negro Women as a traditional civil-rights organization. But the real reason, he acknowledges, was "male chauvinism."
Height's fierce, yet soft-spoken, presence eventually wore down that chauvinism. She was "tireless," re-calls Lewis. She was also more of a visionary than she is generally given credit for. Height saw--much more clearly than most of the men around her--that the civil-rights movement had to evolve, that a crusade for equality that refused to treat women as equals would inevitably stumble over its own gigantic contradiction. So she became, in Lewis's words, "a spokesperson for women's rights long before there was a modern women's movement. …