Honoring Civil Rights leader Dorothy Height

[Washington Window] What does it mean to be a mentor?

It means more than attaining personal success and recognition, which Civil Rights leader Dorothy I. Height undoubtedly achieved many times over during her 98 years of life.

It means more than effecting massive social change, working to rid universities and other institutions of the scourge of segregation and championing the rights of women worldwide.

Being a mentor means doing all that, while reaching out a hand to help others rise.

For generations of women, Height was both mentor and role model. And in tribute, hours before her April 29 funeral at Washington National Cathedral began; long before the carillon, organ and choral preludes she had chosen commenced, generations of women lined up to pay their respects.

At 5 a.m., when the first event staff and volunteers arrived at the cathedral, the line for the 10 a.m. service was already forming. Women in hats, suits and high heeled shoes stood patiently in the early morning chill.

Inside, from the South Transept balcony, Von Alexander – one of Height’s many mentees – watched the dignitaries arrive, sporting a hat the two had purchased together.

“She was lovely – oh she was so wise,” she said. “You could call anytime day or night. You went on to do whatever she told you to do… One of her favorite expressions was: If it was easy, I wouldn’t be asking you to do it.”

Alexander was working for singer Melba Moore when Height approached her about producing a star-studded recording of Lift Every Voice and Sing, an anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

“She wanted African Americans to know that America has an anthem that identified us as a people,” Alexander said.

And she made it happen. In addition to Moore, the recording featured R&B artists Anita Baker, Stephanie Mills, Dionne Warwick, Bobby Brown, Stevie Wonder, Jeffrey Osborne, Howard Hewett and gospel artists BeBe & CeCe Winans, Take 6 and The Clark Sisters.

Radio stations played it at high noon all across the country on the day of its release. And in 1990 the song was entered into the Congressional Record as the official African American National Hymn. “It was this little old lady…” Alexander said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

As an 18-year-old arriving in New York to stay with her sister’s family, Height was already a formidable figure, her nephew Dr. Bernard C. Randolph recalled during the service.

“We were advised by our parents to be on our best behavior,” he said, explaining that Height had just won a national oratory competition and was already a star. “She was a good mentor, with a capacity to inspire people to do the best they could.”

Height was at his side, Randolph said, when he entered Howard Medical School years later.

Camille Cosby, an educator and wife of the comedian, Bill Cosby, recalled Height’s “clear determination and strong positive self perception” that “did not allow men to push her into the background,” saying she managed to be “firm and assertive without losing woman.”

And always, Cosby said, she wore her trademark hats.

She wore these hats to the White House, President Barack Obama said in his tribute, which she visited “not once, not twice, but 21 times,” after he took office. Yet she remained refreshingly free of ego.

“She never cared about who got the credit,” Obama said, referring to Height as a drum major for justice. “She didn’t need to see her picture in the paper. She knew that the movement gathered strength from the bottom up. She cared about the cause of justice…”

Twelve years ago, Height preached at the 1998 Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Her pullout quote in the diocesan newspaper: “We respond to Jesus’ call as we strive for justice and compassion for all people in our community.”

Many people in the diocese knew her personally; many more found her a source of inspiration.

“As past president of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority I had many occasions to be in her presence and was always inspired by her,” said Joyce Harris of St. George’s, D.C.

Harris was not able to attend the funeral, but was able to hear Height speak at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Montgomery County Chapter of the sorority in March.

“She spoke for about 10 minutes from the dais – you could hear a pin drop,” she said. “We had probably 3 or 400 people there and everyone was just listening with rapt attention. I listened with all my might. You could tell she was not feeling strong, but her words were so inspiring.”

A member of the Deltas since 1961, Harris has served as president of two alumni chapters and as parliamentarian to a third. “Observing her and her ability to be a pioneer and to step forward inspired me from the time that I was in college to step out and to try and do those things that would pave the way for others behind me,” she said. “She taught us to do our best so that those who came behind would have a path blazed. She taught me not to be concerned about gender, but to do what needed to be done.”

Growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Lori Perine – a parishioner of St. Luke’s, Bethesda and former member of the Diocesan Council – attended a segregated kindergarten. (Schools were integrated the following year.)

“Dorothy Height was the only woman out there you could see that was active in the Civil Rights era, and she was very much a lady at all times,” Perine said. “It was an interesting model of what it meant to be a change agent and also someone who was nice to sit down and have tea with.

“I think it’s very rare these days for women of whatever color to see a powerful woman who is very steeped in the old way of courtesy and etiquette. It’s a different way of being powerful.

“She was very much a member of the elder generation by the time I came into my professional life, but at the same time she was an elder whose blessing you wanted to have. She’s one of those people who no matter where you went in the African American community, if you said her name, there was an instant respect and reverence for her.”

When Height’s death was announced, Perine said, “every single one of my African American women friends on Facebook posted it.”

As a teenager, Kim Sanders – executive assistant to canons Paul Cooney and the Rev. Preston Hannibal – was a huge fan of Mary McLeod Bethune, an FDR-era educator and presidential advisor whose parents had been slaves.

“At the time that I grew up there weren’t many stories in history books about African Americans. You heard about it from your teachers if you went to a black school, which I did, and from your family.

“Growing up in a matriarchal family it seemed natural to be interested in strong women. Dorothy Height had picked up the work that Mary McLeod Bethune had done – and also she looked like my grandma!”

In 1993, Dorothy Height came to Church House to meet Bishop Ronald Haines, and Sanders had the opportunity to meet her – finding herself uncharacteristically tongue-tied.

“When she died, one of the first things I thought about was, she’s done so much – what have I done? Not everyone can be like these two extraordinary women, but you use them as an example,” she said.

“She was such a model of hope and of persistence and she had such a beautiful presence and she always wore these beautiful hats. She always spoke very calmly, very quietly and she always had something significant to say,” said the Rev. Carleton Hayden, history professor at Howard University and a retired priest of the diocese. “To me she really represents something that’s been very central in the African American experience: she really is something of an icon.”

Hayden recalled her efforts, along with the National Council for Negro Women, to begin the Black Family Reunion Celebration a quarter-century ago, an annual event designed to bring families together for a big picnic with music.

“She was really rooted in the black community and most of what she did was related to, grew out of, her concerns in the back community,” he said.

But while the black community was her bedrock, her work and her influence was much farther-reaching, he said, in the same way that Lift Every Voice and Sing has become a universal anthem.

“It really speaks to the particularity and the universality of the African American experience,” Hayden said. “What’s amazing is how much it speaks to everyone’s struggle; everyone can sing it with feeling.”

Offering the final reflection at Height’s funeral, which she helped to organize, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman said Height’s final gift will be her forthcoming book, Living with Purpose.

What does it mean to live a life of purpose?

It means that after the hearse has driven away, the president has returned to the White House and the half-mast flags have been run back up the pole, a legion of women will willingly – and gladly – continue your work.

First appeared in Washington Window, Vol. 79, No. 4 , July – August 2010 as

Honoring Dorothy Height

Civil Rights leader served as role model, mentor to many