Dorothy Height: A Black Civil Rights Activist Wrongfully Left Out of the Press

“Progress comes from caring more about what needs to be done than about who gets the credit” - Dorothy Height


Entering a weekend celebrating the successes in the civil rights movement by the inspirational Martin Luther King Jr., I want to highlight another influential individual.

Dorothy Height fought alongside MLK for the rights of African Americans. In her lifetime she forwarded racial justice, voter equality through the illumination of poll taxes, and the improvement of women in education, employment and equal pay.

During MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Dorothy was right beside him, standing as the only woman on stage, not allowed to speak.  This was a common motif in her life, despite her position as a main leader of the civil rights movement. She failed to receive just recognition in the press and subsequently through history because she was a Black woman.

She handled the discrimination life dealt her with dignity, strength and compassion. From a young age she stood out for her exceptional academic work. Barnard College took note of her and granted her admission, only to rescind the offer when the quota of two African American students had already been filled (a mistake they would regret later).

She instead found a place at NYU, where she made a life, immersing herself in the Harlem culture in the 1930s while earning a Bachelors and Master’s degree in psychology.

True to her giving nature, she began her career with social work for impoverished New York neighborhoods. By age 25, Dorothy had become a civil rights activist through her membership to the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW).

This is where her work for race and gender equality catapulted her into the sphere of influence, especially in 1957 when Height became the fourth president of the NCNW. She held this position with prestige for forty years.

She made use of her time at the top, organizing “Wednesdays in Mississippi” to encourage discourse between women from diverse backgrounds, both Black and white, north and south.

This forum generated tones of cooperation and understanding, uniting women in a world where outside forces were likely to pull them apart. In the 1960s the Civil rights movement was in full swing and Dorothy was one of the leaders at the helm.

To ensure effective and united efforts a Counsel on United Civil Rights Leadership (CUCRL) was composed of the six key figures in the advancement of African American freedoms, Dorothy was the only woman included in the coalition.

The media, however, often referred to the group as the “Big Four,” ignoring Height due to sexism. Lack of a spotlight did not lessen Height’s tireless appeal for change.

As a testament to her vision for a better future, her guidance was sought out by multiple presidents. She stressed the need for integration to Dwight D. Eisenhower. More glass-ceilings were broken by her insistence that LBJ appoint Black women to government jobs.

She remained respected in the political realm, being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. She was on stage during Obama’s inauguration, a front row seat manifesting her hard work and the hope for further progress.