Child Watch® Column:
Honoring Dr. Dorothy Irene Height:
Great Civil Rights, Women's Rights and Children's Rights Leader

Release Date: February 17, 2017

Marian Wright Edelman

“We African American Women seldom do just what we want to do, but always what we have to do. I am grateful to have been in a time and place where I could be a part of what was needed.”

This quote inscribed on Dr. Dorothy Height’s Congressional Gold Medal was just one of the many dozens of awards she received over her extraordinary life of 98 years, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A posthumous honor on February 1st from the U.S. Postal Service celebrated the beginning of Black History Month by dedicating the 40th stamp in its Black Heritage series with a beautiful new design featuring Dr. Height in her ever present beautiful hat. She was a brilliant indefatigable lantern and role model for millions of women of all colors but especially Black women, and a long haul social change agent blessed with uncommon commitment and talent.

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Her fingerprints are quietly embedded in many transforming events of the last seven decades as Blacks and other people of color pushed open and walked through previously closed doors of opportunity. The new stamp is a fitting tribute to tireless activism whose example is so needed right now everywhere as a half-century of progress for those left behind is threatened with dismantlement.

Dorothy Height, born in Richmond, Virginia in 1912, transcended the limits the Jim Crow society of her childhood placed on a young Black girl. From an early age her speaking skills stood out, and she attended New York University in part with a $1,000 scholarship from a national oratorical contest (after being turned away by Barnard, which had already reached its quota of two Negro students for that year). She cited November 7, 1937 as the day that changed her life when she was the 25-year-old assistant director of the Harlem YWCA and was chosen to escort First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to a National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) meeting where she met NCNW’s founder and president, the legendary Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, who was immediately impressed with her. She became Dorothy’s close friend and mentor, and in 1957, two years after Mrs. Bethune’s death, Dr. Height became NCNW’s president — a position she held until 1998 when she became Chair and President Emerita, a title she held until her death in 2010 at 98 years young.

During the Civil Rights Movement, while so many women were playing vital roles that weren’t featured in the spotlight, Dorothy Height was always up front with a seat at the table. She was often the only woman in the room with Dr. King and the rest of the “Big Six” group of male leaders as they planned many key strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. She sat on the stage — she should have been a speaker — at the historic 1963 March on Washington. She led the NCNW membership as active participants in the movement and reminded us that women were its backbone — unseen but strong and indispensable. A cornerstone of NCNW’s civil rights strategies was Wednesdays in Mississippi, which brought together prominent White and Black northern women to travel to Mississippi to develop relationships with Black and White southern women, educate themselves and each other, and create bridges of understanding between the North and South across racial and class lines. It’s a model of women’s partnership that resonates right now.

NCNW developed a range of model national programs focused on Black women’s and families’ needs. She always stayed focused on the ways African Americans’ needs connect to a larger national and global mission. She participated in conferences and leadership training sessions and on official delegations around the world, and from the White House to the United Nations, her expertise on civil rights, women’s rights, and human rights was always in demand. Through it all, Dr. Height’s intellect and wisdom remained sharp as did her signature sense of style. She always looked good! When Dr. Height was awarded her Congressional Gold Medal, then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton began her tribute by saying she had known Dr. Height for more than thirty years, when they began working together on the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)’s board — and “just as in those long ago days, today once again, Dr. Height is the best dressed woman in the entire room.” The new postage stamp pays fitting tribute to her legacy of beautiful hats as did a play “If This Hat Could Talk.”

But it’s Dr. Height’s substance that we need to study and remember today, especially her willingness to put her head down and keep working regardless of whether the winds were with her or against her. To me she was a dearest friend, mentor, and role model, and CDF was blessed to have her wisdom for over thirty years. In 1990, she co-convened with great historian Dr. John Hope Franklin and CDF a quiet but landmark meeting of 22 Black leaders at the beautiful Rockefeller Foundation conference center in Bellagio, Italy that launched the Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC) committed to Leave No Child Behind™, the incubator for community service models like the summer CDF Freedom Schools® program, Beat the Odds® youth leadership program, and the Harlem Children’s Zone. We honored her during her life with a weekend symposium at CDF-Haley Farm where we named a beautiful old cabin as the Bethune-Height House. After she was wheelchair-bound, she was still by our side rallying at the U.S. Capitol in support of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). When she passed away we lost a wise counselor, a rock and an “energizer bunny” we could always lean on for support in tough times.

While we were privileged to know her personally, everyone can learn from her servant leadership example and commitment to doing what she had to do. I hope this new stamp helps spur all of us on to protect the civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights and human rights threatened today.


Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Bev Jackson at: February 22, 2017
Thank you so much for keeping our memory of her alive. I remeber her kindness toward my infant son (now in his thirties) at a CDF Conference/event in Atlanta. She always had a kind word wherever she went even though she was a major leader and a force toward building the civil rights movement.

Submitted by Mary at: February 22, 2017
I was thrilled to see the new postage stamp bearing Dr. Height's picture. I have already ordered first run post cards and 2 sets of the stamps to share with colleagues. Dr. Height was an inspiration to many. Thank you for honoring her legacy.

Submitted by Anne at: February 21, 2017
I am so grateful for having met Dr. Height on several occasions, first through CDF back in the Child Watch days and then forward throughout my work with the Association of Junior Leagues International. She was a beacon, an inspirer of confidence, and a reminder of the long road ahead.

Submitted by mbmsw at: February 19, 2017
I think her picture- and great quote- along with many other of our unsung heroines/heroes should line the main corridors or every School of Social Work in the country. I will make it a mission in ours- our younger generations don't know Dorothy or many of them!

Submitted by DL at: February 17, 2017
I greatly admire both Edelman and Height and so please forgive this point of departure. But as a radical democrat, I wonder at what point in the life of children developing into adults that they lose their glow as equally unique and original human beings, as blessed children of God, and then the glow is only on the few great individuals who have achieved prominence in society. Do you see how even civil rights leaders are guilty of this heroic mythology of individualism that justifies and reinforces vast inequality and the privileged lives of the relative few? Where is Howard Zinn and E.P. Thompson to rescue us from this self-congratulatory narcissism of the elite, liberal and conservative?!