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Black History Month Kicks Off With Forever Stamp of Dorothy Height

Demonstrators and marchers carry American flags on the Selma to Montgomery march held in support of voter rights, Alabama, late March, 1965. (Photo by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

At the end of the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a staggering sea of people. He went on to deliver a speech that would inspire generations to come. As he shared his dreams, his vision for America, by his side stood Dorothy Height, one of the most influential civil rights and women’s rights activists of the latter half of the century.

She was not invited to talk that day.

Height later wrote that the March on Washington event had been an eye-opening experience for her. Her male counterparts "were happy to include women in the human family,” she said, according to the Los Angeles Times, “but there was no question as to who headed the household.”

US civil rights narratives often omit or minimize the role that women like Height played in securing equality for all citizens under the law. Remembering that women were also — alongside the Martin Luther King Jr.’s — the protagonists of this movement goes a long way toward restoring historical accuracy.

On the first day of Black History Month, during a ceremony at Howard University, the US postal service dedicated a forever stamp in Height’s name, the 40th in its Black Heritage Forever series. The African-American woman, dubbed “the godmother of the civil rights movement” by former president Barack Obama, is depicted staring out from under the wide brim of her signature, purple hat.  

“The Postal Service is proud to honor civil rights icon Dorothy Height, an American treasure, whose illustrious career spanned almost a century,” said Ronald Stroman, deputy postmaster general and chief government relations officer, in a statement.  

Undeterred by racism and sexism, Heights dedicated her life to fighting for the rights and opportunities of primarily African-American women. As president of the National Council of Negro Women, she led the organization through the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement up until the 1990s. She also established the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice in 1965, which she ran until 1977.

Gaining recognition from her work with the council and center, she helped launch campaigns and initiatives with the “Big Six”:  Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, John Lewis and James Farmer.  

With the same gusto she mustered fighting for civil rights, she also championed women’s rights. Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm were just a few of the activists she rubbed shoulders with throughout her career. In 1971, the four of them would found the National Women’s Political Caucus.

The honors bestowed upon her include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to her by former president Bill Clinton in 1994. “One of the world’s most tireless and accomplished advocates of civil rights, the rights of women, and the health and stability of family and community life,” he said in his remarks about her.

Height did not live to see the day she would become the 15th African American woman to be featured on her own postage stamp. She died on April 20, 2010, in Washington, DC. This 41st anniversary of Black History Month, Height’s commemoration serves as a reminder of the power of resilience during unusual times like these.