For more than half a century, Dorothy Height’s leadership has advanced the liberation struggleof black women. She has indeed carried out the dream of her friend and mentor, Mary McLeod Bethune, to leave no one behind.
November 7, 1937, Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women, noticed the assistant director of the Harlem YWCA as she escorted Eleanor Roosevelt into an NCNW meeting. When Bethune approached Height asking for help in advancing women’s rights, she eagerly accepted a volunteer position. In doing so, she began her dual role with the YWCA and the NCNW, integrating her background as a social worker and educator and her experiences as an international youth and women’s advocate with her commitment to rising above the limitations of race and sex. She began forging bonds between women across race and class in her travels and studies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America and reaffirmed her conviction that making international connections to women would only strengthen her movement work.
Height quickly rose through the ranks of the YWCA, working on programs and policies that pushed them toward more progressive attitudes concerning black women. The organization’s full commitment to integration owes much to her work. Her career as a civil rights advocate blossomed, and in 1947, she was elected national president of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. As with the YWCA and the NCNW, she carried them to another level, moving the sorority into a new era of activism on the national and international scenes. So naturally, her subsequent appointment as the president of the National Council of Negro Women in 1957 made perfect sense. She worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph and others, participating in almost every major civil and human rights event in the 1960’s. Height worked simultaneously for all three organizations, retiring from the YWCA in 1977 and from the NCNW in 1998.
Perhaps her most important work was as president of the NCNW, where she led a crusade for justice for black women and worked to strengthen the black family. She developed several national and community-based programs, placing special emphasis on drawing young people in, and established the Bethune Museum and Archives for Black Women, the first institution devoted to black women’s history. “Black women,” says Height, “are the backbone of every institution.”
She has received innumerable awards for her tireless efforts, including the Citizens Medal Award from President Ronald Reagan in 1989 and the Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1994. In continuing the NCNW’s mission “to advance opportunities and the quality of life for African-American women, their families, and communities, ” Dorothy Height has provided a critical voice in articulating the needs and aspirations of women of African descent around the world.