Blog of Rights

Dr. Dorothy Height Told Us That It's Not a Man's Civil Rights World

By Laura W. Murphy, Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 1:21pm

Today, a memorial service was held for civil rights pioneer Dorothy Height. Laura Murphy, Director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, reflects upon Dr. Height's activism.

The passing of Dr. Dorothy Height was a huge loss to the nation, particularly to American women. She inspired me and so many women leaders because she embraced and nurtured her sisters and daughters in the movement. I lost a role model and a mentor who, whenever we met, always clasped my hand in hers, looked me in the eyes and said, "Carry on."

She had a determination to stand her ground as a leader for over 70 years throughout the entire modern day civil rights movement which is sadly, to this day, a deeply male-dominated sphere. It is striking how Dr. Height outlasted so many men who were the civil rights leaders of the moment. It was her extraordinary combination of skills and attributes that were hardwired into her being: a tremendous memory for names, dates and events, flawless command of the English language, a unique speaking voice, an elegant style of dressing, her height, her steady temperament and unwavering good manners. Dr. Height was the embodiment of a dominant yet subtle form of grace.

Dr. Height's quick mind could out-maneuver compatriots and adversaries. She was the tortoise and not the hare in the race. She stood steadfast with a regal bearing and a twinkle in her eye while the guys rushed to grab the microphone, and effectively chided them without humiliation when they forgot that women are the backbone of the most durable black institutions — whether it is the church, the voter registration efforts, the sororities, the Links, Jack & Jill, or her own National Council of Negro Women — groups with longevity and real staying power. Our mothers and sisters licked the envelopes, went door to door, registered the voters, went to the polls, fed the leaders and trained the kids to keep the movement going. Dr. Height never forgot about us.

Dr. Height often demonstrated her remarkable skill as the "clean-up" speaker. The men in the civil rights movement often had her speak last (so as to not to miss the elusive TV cameras) and when she did, she packed a powerful punch by putting the moment in historical context and reminding us to stay resolved to keep the pressure on. Unlike some leaders, when she spoke, she never burned a bridge with a vicious attack or an off-color remark, she rarely budged when men tried to shunt her aside, and she understood that whenever possible she should lift up the good that Black America had to offer — especially its women.

The female icons of the civil rights movement are a vanishing species in our collective consciousness: the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers, C. Delores Tucker, Rep. Barbara Jordan and Althea Simmons, the first female head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Washington Bureau. Fortunately, we have women with great tenure in the civil rights movement in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Foremost among them is Rep. Maxine Waters, the CBC Chair Rep. Barbara Lee and Eleanor Homes Norton, but few know that there are 10 other black women in the Black Caucus. Black women leaders who have decades in the movement are not sought after by the media outlets, consulted for their social justice expertise and experience by think tanks, invited by those putting together congressional hearings, or even consulted by the Obama White House nearly as much as they should be. And let's not forget about the women that Dr. Height personally mentored or inspired including former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, Barbara Arnwine, Elaine Jones, Melanie Campbell, Julienne Malveaux and countless women who are rising stars in advocacy and academia. If you don't have their names in your contact information, or know who they are, you should.

Thank goodness there will be much made of the passing of Dr. Height with services at the National Cathedral and with press editorials and statements from the White House and former U.S. presidents and national and world leaders. I will be pleasantly surprised if women are the dominant voices. Dr. Height may get her due in her passing, but what about the one thing that Dr. Height worked so hard to achieve? What about her work to lift women, especially black women into leadership roles? For those of us who knew her and loved her, the best thing that we can do is to is grab the hand of a young woman, especially those who are committed to social justice issues, look them in the eye and say, "Carry on!"

Cross-posted to ACSBlog and Huffington Post.

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