Rev Irene Monroe

Gay community loses black civil rights ally Dorothy Height

Filed By Rev Irene Monroe | April 21, 2010 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: African-American, civil rights leader, Dorothy Height, morality, obituary

Civil Rights activist Dorothy Irene Height died on April 20th at the age of 98. Of prominent African American civil rights allies to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community - Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond, and John Lewis, to name a few- Height wasn't profiled and honored enough.

dorothyireneheight2.jpgBut this unsung heroine was never concerned about accolades. In an interview with Gwen Ifill, an African American journalist, and television newscaster for PBS, about her memoir, "Open Wide the Freedom Gates," Height said, "If you worry about who is going to get credit, you don't get much work done."

This grande dame of the civil rights era, however, got a lot of work done in her lifetime, exhibiting indefatigable energy in championing for gay civil rights as she did eighty-plus years championing race and gender civil rights.

As president for forty years (1957- 1997) of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), an organization with the objective of advancing opportunities and the quality of life for African American women, their families and communities with programs on issues like voting rights, poverty and, in later years, AIDS, Height understood that black families and communities could neither be whole nor healthy without championing gay civil rights for its LGBTQ community.

For example, in 1996 with Elizabeth Birch, then-president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Height worked the halls of Congress when the Employment Non-Discrimination Act faced (ENDA) its first vote on the Senate floor. Although the Senate rejected ENDA 50-49 Height continued her efforts.

At the height of when African American ministers, especially those of the civil right era, claiming to have marched and worked with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, vehemently denounced the gay liberation struggle as a civil rights issue Height, in her acceptance speech at the 1997 Human Rights Campaign National Dinner, at which she was honored for her civil rights work, said: "Civil rights are civil rights. There are no persons who are not entitled to their civil rights. ... We have to recognize that we have a long way to go, but we have to go that way together."

Height's understanding of LGBTQ civil rights derived from her in-fighting for gender equity with the stalwarts of civil rights movement. With only black heterosexual men in leadership role during the Movement both its women and LGBTQ communities were constantly sidelined, albeit shouldering most of the work. For example, Just as Bayard Rustin, the architect of the 1963 March on Washington which catapulted King onto a national stage, didn't have a speaking role at the March because of homophobic sentiments, Height, then president of the National Council of Negro Women, and one of the March's chief organizers and a prizewinning orator herself, didn't have a speaking role because of sexist attitudes.

In an interview with NPR in 2003 Height commented on the sexism at the March stating that Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel Music, was the only woman heard from the podium that day.

"My being seated there had some very special meaning because women had been trying to get a woman to speak on the program," Height said, "but we were always met by the planners with the idea that women were represented in all of the different groups, in the churches, in the synagogues, in the unions, organizations and the like. So the only voice we heard of a woman was that of Mahalia Jackson."

Born in 1912 before women had the right to vote in 1920 and when Jim Crow America was still very much alive Height confronted not only sexism but she also faced racism. In 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression, Height was admitted to Barnard College, one of the elite Seven Sister private colleges for women. Unbeknownst to her of the school's unwritten racial quota policy of only allowing two black students per academic year, Height, upon arriving on campus as the third student, was denied entrance.

Bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004, Height was an exemplar of quiet dignity, prophetic witness, and public service. And it is her shoulder we all stand on.

In 1947 Height became president of the Delta Theta Sigma Sorority Inc., a Greek-lettered sorority of African American college-educated women who perform public service in the African American community. And her life's work upheld its motto: "Lifting as We Climb."

As we say in the African American community, Height has gone home to Jesus, but we give thanks for her strength as a fighter for social justice on which we have leaned on, and for her grace by which we have grown.

Height was not only a public servant, but she was also one of our moral leaders.

And by example, Height has showed us that our social justice work is recognized best when we shift the paradigm of looking for moral leadership from outside of ourselves to within ourselves; thus, realizing we are not only the agents of change in society, but also the moral leaders we have been looking for.

And for that we give her thanks.

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Michael @ | April 21, 2010 9:23 PM


Terrance Heath quoted today on PHB a passage from an NPR program he once appeared on with Dr. Height:

"HOST: So when you think about a family like Terrance Heath's - two, gay men raising a son - does that fit into the traditional values structure that you're taking about? Is it a structure that is open to families of different composition and it's more about the energy you bring to it or do you make a distinction between different kids of families?

Dr. HEIGHT: No, we recognize that in this country we accepted the nuclear family, but we also recognize many different kinds of families. And the important thing about it is the extent of which the family cares one for the other and that they take care of each other and that they have a sense of - a commitment to being a part of life together."

And in the interview at the link below, apparently filmed roughly a month before her death, in addition to displaying a fabulous hat :- ) Dr. Height diplays how, despite a weakened voice, marvelously coherent and articulate someone can still be at age 98.

Though on the general topic of women, she includes in her advice for young women: "Don't fear difference," a remark that, given your example and Terrance's, must have included LGBTs.

It is a sad irony that she passed on the same day [and the day after] many were condemning others for daring to confront and criticize the President this week re DADT.

Dr. Height was criticized decades ago herself for the lack of decorum she and a woman friend displayed when they walked through Times Square chanting "Stop the lynchings!"

And she liked to quote Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, president of Morehouse College:

"If the time is not ripe, then it is your job to ripen the time."

A beautiful hat and a gorgeous woman. As she said..."Don't fear difference. Appreciate the differences".

2wheels2four 2wheels2four | April 21, 2010 10:23 PM

This was one of the select few truly awesome human beings to breathe air on earth during our lifetimes. Articulate, open-minded and open-hearted, purposeful, and unflagging in her devotion to equality and common decency - if there's a choir of angels in heaven, they are ROCKIN' WITH JOY to see this woman's face among them.

She was an amazing woman whose loss was inevitable but sad and serious.

She will be missed. We wouldn't be this far without her.