Dorothy Height's Model of Activism Is Still Urgently Needed Today
She dedicated her life to civil rights and voter awareness.
Racist poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, violence, and various other tactics lowered black voter registration in the southern United States, plummeting from more than 90% during Reconstruction to a mere 3% in the 1940s.
That was the Jim Crow political climate that Dorothy Height — born in 1912 in Richmond, Virginia — entered as she began her lifelong career of activism. She knew that abysmal voting access in the South made a mockery of the 14th and 15th amendments of the Constitution, written after the Civil War to grant black men the right to vote, and the 19th amendment, achieved in 1920 to give women suffrage.
At the time it often seemed like a fixed situation, with the Ku Klux Klan marauding through communities and segregation violently enforced in everyday life. But Height was determined to make sure this unjust disenfranchisement didn’t last forever.
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So she began advocating. As a teenager growing up in Rankin, Pennsylvania, she participated in voter registration drives and anti-lynching protests. These efforts often took place in the face of bitter opposition, and they instilled in Height a steely resolve — a conviction that perseverance can overcome bigotry.
Her skill as a leader was apparent early on. While in high school, she gained national prominence by winning an oratory contest on the Constitution in which she was the only black contestant participating in front of an all-white panel of judges. Height spoke about the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, known as the Reconstruction Amendments, and she took home the prize.
Despite this acclaim, Height’s form of leadership never sought the spotlight — a trait that would be become clear in future decades when her instrumental work in the civil rights movement was largely left out of headlines and history books.
“Stop worrying about whose name gets in the paper and start doing something about rats, and day care and low wages,” she said after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004, at the age of 92. “We must try to take our task more seriously and ourselves more lightly."
But history has since set the record straight. After Height died in 2010 at the age of 98, former President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy and described her as "the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement and a hero to so many Americans … [who] devoted her life to those struggling for equality … witnessing every march and milestone along the way.”
In fact, Height was busy advocating for equal rights to the very end. She visited Obama in the White House 21 times to talk about health care, civil rights, and other issues.
“We don't need the marches that we had in the past,” she told NPR in 2008. “But we need more consideration in looking at the boardroom tables and at the policies that are going on, looking at what's happening in industry, what's happening in terms of employment opportunities, housing and the like. So that I think it opens up a new way for us to look at our community.”
Height’s focus on the bigger picture in the pursuit of justice was also clear from the beginning. As a teenager, she had a full scholarship to go to Barnard College in New York, but when she arrived, the dean told her that she wouldn’t be able to attend because they had already reached their quota for black students.
This institutional racism stung, but Height hopped on the subway, presented her Barnard acceptance letter to New York University, and was accepted on the spot. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in education and master’s in psychology, setting herself up for a life committed to civil rights.
After college, she first worked as a caseworker for city’s welfare system and then joined the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), a nonprofit dedicated to combating racism and empowering women.
Her first major campaign at the YWCA was to expose the exploitation of female domestic workers, who would congregate in what were called “slave markets” to be picked up to go work in the suburbs surrounding New York. Height’s advocacy triggered an investigation by the New York City Council, where her testimony helped to temporarily disperse the markets.
Soon, she was elevated to the top of the organization, where she helped run operations for three decades.
In many ways, Height was a pioneer of intersectionality, the idea that each person’s identity stems from multiple characteristics of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual preference, and more, and approached her activism in this holistic manner.
She always championed community solidarity. In the 1980s, Height inaugurated the Black Family Reunion Celebration to counter harmful media stereotypes and hundreds of thousands of people showed up to Washington. The event has been held ever since. In the 1960s, she organized events to give pigs away to poor families, and arranged for women of different backgrounds from northern states to meet women in southern states to assist in voting drives and education programs.
This was at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, and Height was right alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and the other leading figures of the movement, shaping policy and mobilizing support.
When King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, Height’s influence was clear from the fact that she was the only woman on the stage next to him.
She then organized an event the next day to challenge both sexism and racism.
As the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination in 1964, Height realized that there was still a lot of work to do to achieve equal rights, especially when it came to women of color. So she formed the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice, which would become a core part of the organization.
And while the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended much of the racial discrimination engineered by the Jim Crow laws, equal voting access continues to remain elusive today. Progress that has been made since the 1960s has been rolled back.
Today, millions of people with past criminal convictions, for instance, have had their right to vote stripped, even though that’s a violation of the US constitution. Since the Voting Rights Act was partially dismantled in 2008, tactics intended to disenfranchise certain classes of voters have been passed throughout the US. Some of these efforts include shutting down voting places, restricting voting hours, curbing early voting access, purging people from voter records, mandating new forms of identification to participate, and more.
These acts of voter suppression have turned the US into a country with some of the lowest electoral participation in the world, and participation among black, Hispanic, and Asian voters were lower than the overall average.
These are trends that have contributed to the country’s increasing inequality. And they’re something that Height fought against her entire life.
“Dorothy Height was a drum major for justice,” Obama said during his eulogy for her. “A drum major for equality. A drum major for freedom. A drum major for service. And the lesson she would want us to leave with today -- a lesson she lived out each and every day -- is that we can all be first in service. We can all be drum majors for a righteous cause. So let us live out that lesson.”
The fight for justice is ongoing and all of us have the opportunity to be drum majors for justice in our everyday lives. As Height knew, the right to vote is fundamental and exercising it can bring about the kind of revolutionary change that she dedicated her life to.
On Saturday, Sept. 22, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Global Citizen, When We All Vote, and the City of New York are teaming up to host a rally in Central Park and Columbus Circle. A diverse range of speakers will be there to discuss what can happen when we all vote, and explain how you can register to vote ahead of the midterm elections on Nov. 6.
And you’ll have a chance to continue the legacy of civil rights icons like Height.
Your vote is your voice. Join us in speaking out and showing up for the issues you care about at our nonpartisan event on Sept. 22 at the USS Maine Monument at the Merchants' Gate entrance to Central Park, located on West 59th Street at Columbus Circle. Learn about the importance of voting and how you can register to vote from Global Citizen and our partners from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and earn points for the final ticket draw for the 2018 Global Citizen Festival. More information here.
The 2018 Global Citizen Festival in New York will be presented for the very first time by Citi. MSNBC and Comcast NBCUniversal will air a live simulcast of the Festival on MSNBC and MSNBC.com. The Festival will also be livestreamed on YouTube and Twitter, presented by Johnson & Johnson.
Proud partners of the 2018 Global Citizen Festival include Global Citizen’s global health partner and major partner Johnson & Johnson, and major partners P&G, CHIME FOR CHANGE Founded by Gucci, Verizon, House of Mandela, iHeartMedia, and NYC Parks. Associate partners include Microsoft, Great Big Story, and One Championship.