ED '33, '35, Honorary Degree '75
Civil Rights Pioneer Still Marching on Washington
"The freedom gates are half ajar, we must pry them fully open.” The educator and pioneering civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune uttered these stirring words five decades ago, and those words have stayed with Dorothy Height, now 91—so much so that she decided to call her newly published memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates (Perseus Press/PublicAffairs).
As chair and president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Height has been at the epicenter of the civil rights movement for more than seven decades. And the poet Maya Angelou, in the memoir’s foreword, gives Height her due—ranking the activist with Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman—as those who "somehow have been elevated beyond this mortal coil." Angelou goes on to write, “It is difficult to believe they ever really inhabited human form, they were so noble, so fierce.“
In 1929, Height came to New York to enroll at Barnard. When she arrived at the college, the dean told her that even though she had been accepted, she would have to wait a year because the two slots for Negro women had already been filled. And, besides, she was “young enough to wait another year." Undaunted, Height, who had been awarded a four-year scholarship for both her grades and her oratorical skills, headed downtown to the NYU Washington Square campus to talk to Dean Ruth Shaffer. Even though Height had not formally applied to NYU, Shaffer invited her to enroll based on a copy of her high school transcript and her acceptance letter from Barnard.
“From the day that Dean Shaffer accepted me, from the day I was turned away from Barnard, NYU was my home,” says Height. “Sororities wouldn’t accept me, but on campus and in the classrooms, I never felt any different. The professors were welcoming 100 percent.”
At NYU, Height helped to organize discussion groups for African-American students, and after graduation she took a job with the New York Home Relief Bureau (later the Department of Welfare). She soon moved on to the Harlem branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, and eventually joined the YWCA’s national staff, where she spearheaded a movement to integrate the organization. In 1957, she took her place in the forefront of the civil rights movement by becoming president of the NCNW. Often, her memoir reveals, she was the only woman privy to high-level discussions with all the great civil rights leaders. When Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, Height was on stage.
After Dr. King was assassinated, Height remembers, people worried that the movement would come to an end. And that fear lasted quite some time. But over the years, she says, the challenge has changed, from the streets to the boardrooms and in the workplace. “I grew up in the Harlem community during the Harlem renaissance, and many young people today have had a different kind of time,” Height says. “They go through doors and don’t know how they got there or how they got opened. We have failed in letting young people know their own history and what the struggle was like.”
Even though Height has just celebrated her 91st birthday, she has no intention of slowing down. From her home in Washington, D.C., she continues the mission, working full-time at the NCNW offices, going to official dinners and functions several nights a week, accepting interviews twice a week and representing the NCNW at meetings on the Hill and in public life. “The key is that I don’t think of it as a job, but as my life’s work,” she says.
And her life’s work is not divided along racial lines, but all matters involving equality. “Every struggle has the same concerns at the bottom of them,” Height says. “Race, color, creed, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, it all matters. We need to go back to the time of the March on Washington. That time in 1963. That coming together of all backgrounds with a fiery sense of righteous indignation.”
Height’s next project is establishing an endowment for the NCNW headquarters, the only building on the corridor between the White House and the Capitol that is African- American-owned. Height says that not only is it at the center of power, it is at the center of history: “The building is on the site of a former slave market and the site of the biggest slave uprising. We are reclaiming our own history, and I want to keep it.”
This profile, written by Elizabeth Cobb, appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of NYU Alumni Magazine.