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Meet Dorothy Height, the woman who shaped Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision

A major leader of the civil rights and women's rights movements, Height's contributions led to a sustained and important change in the fight for justice.

Meet Dorothy Height, the woman who shaped Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision
Image Source: VCU Libraries

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is important to look back on the significant people who influenced his life and made him the leader he was. One of those individuals was Dorothy Irene Height, a civil rights and women's rights activist. She is considered one of the first leaders in the civil rights movement to recognize inequality experienced by women and African Americans as problems that should be considered as a whole. Height, who served as the president of the National Council of Negro Women for four decades, first met MLK Jr. when he was a gifted student entering Morehouse College in Atlanta at the age of 15. Many believe he would not have become the pioneer he was if it were not for Height's incredible influence on him.


Born in 1912, she moved to Rankin, Pennsylvania, a steel town in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, at the age of five. There, she was educated in racially integrated schools. Her mother played an active role in the Pennsylvania Federation of Colored Women's Clubs and often took her daughter to meetings where she established her "place in the sisterhood." Height also participated in a Girl Reserve Club in Rankin, which is where she began her long association with the YWCA. As an enthusiastic participant, she was appalled to find that she was barred from swimming in the pool at the central YWCA branch due to her race. At the time, her protest did not lead to much change in 1920s Pittsburgh, but her activism did influence profound change within the YWCA later on in her life.


In high school, Height was actively involved in anti-lynching campaigns. She went on to receive admission to Barnard College in 1929, but she was unfairly denied entrance due to the school's unwritten policy of admitting only two black students per year. Therefore, she enrolled instead at New York University, earning an undergraduate degree in 1932 and a master's degree in educational psychology the following year. She also pursued postgraduate work at Columbia University and the New York School of Social Work (the predecessor of the Columbia University School of Social Work).


Evidently, the activist was dedicated to social change at a young age. Nonetheless, throughout her life, Height remained committed to the cause of racial and gender justice. Notably, she worked in the New York City Department of Welfare and went on to work as a counselor at the YWCA of New York City, Harlem Branch. While employed there, she had the opportunity to meet with Mary McLeod Bethune. In her 2003 memoir, she writes of the meeting, "On that fall day the redoubtable Mary McLeod Bethune put her hand on me. She drew me into her dazzling orbit of people in power and people in poverty... 'The freedom gates are half ajar,' she said. 'We must pry them fully open.' I have been committed to the calling ever since." Height thereafter went to Washington, DC to be Executive of the Phyllis Wheatley Branch of the DC YWCA. When she returned to New York City, she joined the YWCA national staff. During this time, she helped adopt the organization's Interracial Charter which pledged to work towards an interracial experience within the YWCA and fight against injustice on the basis of race.


As the civil rights movement gained momentum, Height got the YWCA's National Board to allocate funds to launch a country-wide Action Program for Integration and Desegregation of Community YWCAs in 1963. The YWCA also established the Office of Racial Integration (renamed Office of Racial Justice in 1969) as part of the Executive Office, and Height was elected its first Director. She helped to monitor the Association's progress towards full integration, kept abreast of the civil rights movement, facilitated "honest dialogue," aided the Association in making the best use of its African-American leadership (both volunteer and staff) and helped in their recruitment and retention. She eventually retired from the YWCA in 1977, but not before being elected as an honorary national board member, a lifetime appointment. Additionally, she organized Wednesdays in Mississippi with Polly Spiegel Cowan, which brought together black and white women from the North and South to work against segregation. She also served as one of the chief organizers of the March on Washington, although she was never called to speak during the event. In fact, she was the only woman activist on the speakers’ platform during King’s "I Have a Dream" speech.


For all this and more, Height was considered part of the "Big Six" of the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, her influence was largely ignored by the press as a result of deep-entrenched sexism. Former President Barack Obama referred to her as "the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans." "She was truly a pioneer, and she must be remembered as one of those brave and courageous souls that never gave up," Representative John Lewis once said. "She was a feminist and a major spokesperson for the rights of women long before there was a women’s movement." Without a doubt, her exemplary leadership served as a template for MLK Jr. as he went on to navigate and organize the civil rights movement himself.


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