Six years ago, I wrote about the heady anticipation I felt about the prospect of meeting the legendary Dorothy Height. I never wrote about what it was like when we came face to face.
Well, I was awestruck, humbled and nearly tongue-tied. There in Salisbury sat history. Dorothy Height knew Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King. And she first met King when his greatness was only hinted at as a lad of 15.
The day we met was in 2004 at the Women's History Luncheon at Livingstone College where Height was speaker. I was knocked off kilter when she grabbed my hand to tell me she had read the piece I had written about her. She pronounced it well done, and then smiled with the regal calmness of a queen.
When Height died Tuesday at 98, she had more than earned the title many bestowed on her as "Queen mother" of the civil rights movement. Her accomplishments were simply remarkable. In high school she won a nationwide oratory contest, with an all-white jury awarding her the prize of a four-year college scholarship. She was accepted at 16 to Barnard College in New York but they had no place for her because their quota of black students that year — two — had already been achieved. She left and took the subway to New York University where she was admitted at once.
Her social activism took off after she became a social worker. She later worked for the YWCA. Then, at the behest of Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, she began her long association with that group, becoming president for more than four decades. For nearly 80 years, she championed the rights of women, the poor, African Americans and other minorities.
By her death, she had received numerous honorary degrees and the nation's two highest civilian awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom given by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal given by President George W. Bush in 2004. Inscribed on the gold medal is one of Height's classic quotes: "We African American women seldom do just what we want to do, but always do what we have to do. I am grateful to have been in a time and place where I could be a part of what was needed."
That saying pretty much sums up what Dorothy Height was all about. The results of her tireless efforts are evident across the American landscape. Women's wages increased in part because of the work she did in exposing the "slave" wages many women received. Desegregation efforts were aided by programs she helped institute including "Wednesdays in Mississippi" where interracial teams of Northern women came to the state to help bridge the racial divide. Her fingerprints are on movements ranging from outlawing lynching to desegregating the U.S. armed forces.
Always impeccably dressed, often wearing one of her trademark hats, she may have given the impression of being a hand-maiden to the men of the civil rights movement. But in her 2003 memoir, "Open Wide the Freedom Gates," she illuminates her dogged determination to get things done however she could.
It wasn't lost on her, though, that the men didn't want to give up the limelight. She notes in her book that she fought to have a woman as one of the speakers at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 when Martin Luther King capped the day with his now-famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
She wasn't successful. But there on the stage she stood nonetheless - one of the few women captured in photos of the luminaries of the civil rights movement on that historic day.
That's how it was, time after time. Dorothy Height remained in the picture, whether she got to speak or not, whether she got recognized or not. She said once that, "I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom.... I want to be remembered as one who tried."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Fannie Flono is an associate editor for The Charlotte Observer. Write to her at email@example.com.