Civil Rights activist Dorothy Irene Height died on April 20th at the age of 98. Of prominent African American civil rights allies to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community – Corretta Scott King, Julian Bond, and John Lewis, to name a few – Height wasn’t profiled and honored enough.
But this unsung heroine was never concerned about accolades. In an interview with Gwen Ifill, an African American journalist and television newscaster for PBS, about her memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates, Height said, “If you worry about who is going to get credit, you don’t get much work done.”
This grande dame of the civil rights era, however, got a lot of work done in her lifetime, exhibiting indefatigable energy in championing for gay civil rights as she did 80-plus years championing race and gender civil rights.
President for forty years (1957- 1997) of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), an organization with the objective of advancing opportunities and the quality of life for African American women, their families, and communities with programs on issues like voting rights, poverty and, in later years, AIDS, Height understood that black families and communities could neither be whole nor healthy without championing gay civil rights for its LGBTQ community.
For example, in 1996 with Elizabeth Birch, then-president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Height worked the halls of Congress when the Employment Non-Discrimination Act faced (ENDA) its first vote on the Senate floor. Although the Senate rejected ENDA 50-49 Height continued her efforts.
When African American ministers — especially those of the civil right era who claimed to have marched and worked with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King — were vehemently denounced the gay liberation struggle as a civil rights issue Height told the audience at the 1997 Human Rights Campaign National Dinner, which was honoring her civil rights work: “Civil rights are civil rights. There are no persons who are not entitled to their civil rights. … We have to recognize that we have a long way to go, but we have to go that way together.”
Height’s understanding of LGBTQ civil rights derived from her infighting for gender equity with the stalwarts of civil rights movement. With only black heterosexual men in the Movement’s leadership, both its women and LGBTQ communities were constantly sidelined, albeit shouldering most of the work. For example, just as Bayard Rustin — the architect of the 1963 March on Washington which catapulted King onto a national stage — didn’t have a speaking role at the March because of homophobic sentiments, Height, then president of the National Council of Negro Women and one of the March’s chief organizers and a prizewinning orator herself, didn’t have a speaking role because of sexist attitudes.
In an interview with NPR in 2003, Height commented on the sexism at the March stating that Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel Music, was the only woman heard from the podium that day.
“My being seated there had some very special meaning because women had been trying to get a woman to speak on the program,” Height said. “But we were always met by the planners with the idea that women were represented in all of the different groups, in the churches, in the synagogues, in the unions, organizations and the like. So the only voice we heard of a woman was that of Mahalia Jackson.”
Born in 1912 before women had the right to vote in 1920 and when Jim Crow America was still very much alive, Height confronted not only sexism but she also faced racism. In 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression, Height was admitted to Barnard College, one of the elite Seven Sister private colleges for women. Not knowing the school’s unwritten racial quota policy that allowed two black students per academic year, Height was denied entrance upon arriving on campus as the third student.
Bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004, Height was an exemplar of quiet dignity, prophetic witness, and public service. And it is her shoulders we all stand on.
In 1947, Height became president of the Delta Theta Sigma Sorority Inc., a Greek-lettered sorority of African American college-educated women who perform public service in the African American community. And her life’s work upheld its motto: “Lifting as We Climb.”
As we say in the African American community, Height has gone home to Jesus, but we give thanks for her strength as a fighter for social justice on which we have leaned on, and for her grace by which we have grown.
Height was not only a public servant, but she was also one of our moral leaders.
And by example, Height has showed us that our social justice work is recognized best when we shift the paradigm of looking for moral leadership from outside of ourselves to within ourselves; thus, realizing we are not only the agents of change in society, but also the moral leaders we have been looking for.
And for that we give her thanks.