When Dr. Dorothy Irene Height sought a publisher for her memoirs, there was no bidding war. I’d have thought that every publishing house would have vied to publish the life of my friend, mentor and civil rights icon, but she wryly noted that she’d sold neither drugs nor her body, and that her life didn’t conform to any stereotype.
What a life it was! It spanned more than 70 years of activism; personal meetings with every president from FDR through Barack Obama; leadership positions in several women’s organizations, including the National Council of Negro Women and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; and international travel that incorporated advocacy for women and girls around the world.
She has protested everything from lynching to joblessness, and her protests have always had a quiet dignity about them. Indeed, when the journalist Bill Moyers aired a television special on the “vanishing” black family, her inspiration was to organize an antidote, an annual “Black Family Reunion” held in Washington, D.C., and other cities to show the nation and the world that the black family is hardly dying.
Height’s autobiography, “Open Wide the Freedom Gates” (Public Affairs Books, 2005), is a gentle set of reminisces of a life well lived, showcasing both Height’s activism and her wit. She tells of someone describing an elder as “clothed and in their right mind” and wondering why such a comment would be made. Then, she notes as she aged, she realized what a blessing it was to be clothed and in your right mind.
Always stylish and unfailingly sporting a suit and matching hat, she dressed and went to her office every morning until she was hospitalized in mid-March. While most 98-year-olds would be enjoying retirement, Height was up to her earlobes in activism. She was only prevented from a February meeting with President Obama and other civil rights leaders by thigh-high snowdrifts that would be difficult for her to navigate.
When she could not get out, she could work that phone! An early morning phone call from her would not be prefaced with “good morning,” but more frequently with a gentle but insistent request that some task be performed. Once you agreed to the task, the call would most likely be ended, sometimes without a goodbye. When Height was focused, she was focused.
She also knew how to have fun, how to enjoy people and how to tease them. When I attempted a Christmas carol parody for an annual gathering of friends, she remarked that “economists really should not write poetry,” which prompted laughter and a little chagrin. On another occasion, she urged me to attend an after-party after a long (it went into the next day) dinner. When I told her that I was tired, she said, “Well, I’m going.” Since I couldn’t let a 90-something woman have more stamina than I, I tagged along.
She loved being around young people and got a kick out of talking to them. One might think that someone who had conversed with presidents wouldn’t have much to say to little girls, but Antonae Horton and Tierra Holloway from the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center could tell you differently. Indeed, Height loved people regardless of their age. She often said you could learn something from anyone.
She was a great friend because she always showed up. Even though travel was difficult for her (she couldn’t fly on small planes), she made the five-hour drive from Washington and brought her team so she could attend my installation as president of Bennett College for Women in March 2008. She didn’t just come for the installation but for a fundraising luncheon and for the gala that followed. If a friend needed her, she was there.
Height’s death this week is a reminder of how far African American women have come since she began her work in civil rights leadership, and how much more work must be done to attain social, economic and gender justice. She was engaged in this work to the very end of her life, and to the end concerned about high unemployment rates and the special burden African American women face in this economic climate. Her activism, dignity, gentility, passion and compassion are a rare combination and an example for those who follow in her footsteps. I will miss her as a civil rights leader and also as a wise and witty friend.
Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women.
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