Dorothy Height -- an optimist with no illusions
The tireless and resilient Dorothy Height has been termed "an institution" by other women leaders. Ebony magazine said in an editorial, "Millions of blacks have benefitted from the struggles of Dorothy Height."
For all her modesty, she is the epitomy of a woman of achievement. Nine honorary doctoral degrees have been bestowed on her, and she has earned an impressive array of honors and presidential appointments to various commissions on human rights and the status of women.
Dorothy Height was born in Richmond, Va., and grew up in Pennsylvania. As a young student she won the Elks oratorical contest in Chicago for her oral essay on the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution. That prize, a four-year scholarship, was her ticket to college, where her deep study of the Constitution laid the foundation for all the work she would do in the years to come.
"I have always realized how the Constitution guarantees civil and human rights," she says. "But as black people we must work for enforcement of the legal base that we have in law."
Today Miss Height is president of the National Council of Negro Women, which reaches 4 million women through 27 affiliated groups and 200 local sections. Her organization's purpose, from the date that Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune founded it in 1935, has been to advance the interests of black women and their families and communities.
Members represent every background, from share croppers in Mississippi to PhDs serving the federal government in Washington.
"Dr. Bethune recognized the need of black women to unite since she felt they stood outside the mainstream of American opportunity, influence, and power," explains Miss Height during an interview in the council's New York headquarters. "And she decided they could accomplish the most by mobilizing themselves around concrete programs designed to alleviate conditions which plague all deprived people."
Programs in the past have focused on better food production, child care centers, improved housing, education, and health centers. Today the council is developing programs to help the great numbers of minority teen-agers who are out of school and out of work, and that growing number of teen-age girls who become pregnant, or who are young mothers trying to raise their children.
"There is such a sense of uselessness and lack of meaning and personal identity in the lives of so many of our young people," says Miss Height. "We are trying desperately to help them stay in school and take the right courses and develop the right skills for making a living. We are also trying to provide one-to-one counseling and friendship."
The council also runs the Women's Center for Education and Career Development in New York which serves 5,000 black and Hispanic women each year through counseling, job placement, and support services designed to help them gain the knowledge and skills they need to move into better jobs.
"Black women," Miss Height points out, "are still at the very bottom of the economic scale, and in the lowest and least protected jobs. One-third of our families are headed by women, so we must find ways to improve life for them."
At the other end of the job spectrum, she sees more black women moving into law and medicine, as well as teaching and into ownership of their own businesses.
The National Council of Negro Women's strategy is to work with other groups, explains this soft-spoken president with quiet authority. She says that her organization is planing action coalitions in every state and attempting to build more political awareness of black women at every level.
"You will also see us putting a strong emphasis on getting every black person into the census count and registered to vote," she says."In 1970 blacks and Hispanics were undercounted, and as a result we lost some representation and also some distribution of resources."
She adds, "We will be putting much more stress on economic development in the next decade because we don't want just more jobs, but better jobs, decent jobs. We must help our people prepare for them, and get the skills they need."
Although an optimist, Miss Height admits, "It's rough. It really is. It isn't easy to get schools, parents, young people, and organizations all working together to accomplish something. But we will keep trying to give hope and set up some role models and provide more incentives to blacks of all ages."
Both Miss Height and the council she represents are today standing behind passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
"I have heard my country attacked all over the world," says this liberationist, "But I could always see that the US had a foundation in law which we were all trying to work out."
Miss Height, who earned a master's degree in social work from New York University, was part of the 1960s civil-rights leadership, working with leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins.
"I have seen people go to jail, march in the streets, be killed for equality, " she remembers. "A huge price has been paid for all the advancements black men and women have fought for. But I am greatly concerned now to see the lack of vigor in the enforcement of these new gains."
"Power, economic power. Power to get an education and find a job, and make a place. Black people must somehow increase their measure of power in all the ways in order to lift and better themselves," she says.
She always deals, she says, not so much with the problem of race relations, but with the underlying problem of racial justice, which means justice for all, a concept which clears her vision and keeps her patiently moving toward the goal.
During her career Miss Height also served 33 years on the national staff of the YWCA where she helped develop interracial and ecumenical education programs. She has taught and lectured to women in India and Africa and has helped set up the council's program to reach women in developing countries.