Dorothy Height’s Legacy

April 20, 2010

If you’re looking for someone to provide proper perspective on and due justice to the life of Dorothy Height, who died this morning at age 98, please accept my apology in advance. What can a 28-year-old, white, middle-class male from New York possibly have to say about the woman President Barack Obama called the “godmother of the civil rights movement”? This strikes me as one of those times when a person’s legacy speaks far greater volumes than any words the rest of us might come up with.

What do you say about a woman who graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and won a college scholarship to Barnard College, only to be denied admission because the school had already fulfilled its quota of two black students?

What do you say about a woman — the only woman — who stood on the platform of the Lincoln Memorial as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963?

What do you say about the woman King personally selected to go to Birmingham, Alabama, to comfort the families of four young black girls who were killed in an infamously vicious church bombing and provide some semblance of healing to a city torn asunder in its aftermath?

What do you say about a woman who advocated for school desegregation for children, equal pay for women, and civil rights for all — from Presidents Eisenhower to Obama?

What do you say about a woman who for 40 years headed the National Council of Negro Women and helped millions of Americans receive an education, register to vote, raise families, and achieve successful careers?

What do you say about a woman who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and 36 honorary doctorates from college and universities — including, not for nothing, Barnard College?

What do you say about a woman who — despite seeing and living through some of the most violent and traumatic periods of racial turmoil in American history — always fought fairly, spoke respectfully, listened considerately, and rose above the fray each and every time?

What can you, I, or anyone possibly say to do it all justice?

Two words, and only two: thank you.

By:   |   April 20, 2010


  1. Joseph says:

    I agree that Adam’s tribute to Dorothy Height was beautifully stated. Comments like those made by Betty are indicative of a lack of understanding of Ms. Height’s legacy. I find Betty’s remarks “slightly” ignorant – Dorothy Height’s work sought to include as many (not only minorities) in the American Dream as possible. She also supported the view that every individual has the ability and the right to contribute their thoughts and ideas. It’s clear that Betty is not one of those “others” who should do the talking.

  2. Adam Zimmerman says:


    You say you’re slightly insulted that AAUW did not have a woman offer a tribute to Dr. Height on the day of her passing. I submit your premise could not be further from the truth. Through committed and sustained action on the causes she held dear – pay equity, equal access to education, protection of civil rights in the workplace, and others – AAUW does its best to offer tributes to Dr. Height every day. My colleagues and our members are compassionate, intelligent, and committed people; anyone who suggests otherwise does themselves and our organization a disservice. If I may offer you some advice of my own: not all tributes are written or typed, and a blog is hardly the only place where you’ll find them.

    In sum, there is a lot in this world about which we can justifiably feel slightly insulted – the work done by the women here is not one of them.

    Adam Zimmerman

  3. Lisa says:

    Betty, I’m sure you mean well, but it would serve you best to remember that it was Dr Height herself who said “Unity does not mean uniformity.”

    Wonderful job, Adam. I thought your blog spoke well to the universality of Dr Height’s achievements… for women and men, black and white alike. We all owe her a debt of gratitude.

  4. Kim Hassel says:

    Well said, & well done, Dorothy

  5. Zabie says:

    Very well written Adam- you really captured the heart of Dorothy Height.

  6. Betty says:

    “What can a 28-year-old, white, middle-class male from New York possibly have to say about the woman President Barack Obama called the “godmother of the civil rights movement”?”

    Exactly. I find it slightly insulting that the American Association of University WOMEN could not find a WOMAN, let alone a woman of color, to write a tribute to one of the most important leaders of civil rights era and champion for women of color.

    Adam, I’m sure you mean well. But it would serve you best to learn when it’s appropriate to speak and when it’s appropriate to step aside and let others do the talking.

  7. Lisa Goodnight says:

    What an incredibly beautiful post.

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