I am embarrassed to admit that, before this morning, I had never heard of Dorothy Height. Ms. Height, who died this morning at the beautiful age of 98, was apparently one of the most important civil rights leaders of our time. In a statement, President Obama called Ms. Height “the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans.”
According to the New York Times, Ms. Height was a part of Martin Luther King’s inner circle and was on the platform at the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963. Ms. Height was president of the National Council of Negro Women and helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus, along with women like Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm. More from The Times:
Ms. Height is widely credited as the first person in modern civil rights era to treat the problems of equality for women and equality for African-Americans as a seamless whole, merging concerns that had historically been largely separate.
In other words, Ms. Height was an important leader in the fight for civil rights and women’s rights. Why haven’t I ever heard of her before? Why isn’t Dorothy Height a household name like Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks?
I had two U.S. history classes in high school, one of which was Advanced Placement. Why didn’t I learn about Ms. Height in one of those classes? I graduated from college and even took some women’s studies and gender theory courses. Ms. Height’s name was not uttered there.
At this moment, I have two books on U.S. Women’s history in my possession. The first is American Women’s History: An A to Z of People, Organizations, Issues and Events by Doris Weatherford. Ms. Height is not mentioned in this so-called encyclopedia. The second book is Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, which, if you haven’t yet, you really must. A quick glance at the index reveals that Ms. Height is referred to four times in the book. Now I feel doubly sheepish because I hadn’t done all of my research before starting to write this post.
Even though I had read about Dorothy Height in one book once, I still really didn’t know who she was. As a society, we need to do a better job recording and re-telling the histories of all Americans, not just white men.
In the meantime, I can say “thank you”.
Thank you, Dorothy Height. Your life and work will not be forgotten.
UPDATE 6:04 PM: After thinking, and honestly, worrying about how this post could interpreted, I want to clarify something. As an adult, progressive and feminist, I don’t expect to be educated about African-American/American history. What infuriates me is that, to a great degree, Dorothy Height has been written out of American/U.S. history. We need to write her back in and others like her.