Civil-rights activist Dorothy Irene Height died April 20 at the age of 98. Among prominent African-American civil-rights allies to the LGBTQ communitysuch as Corretta Scott King, Julian Bond and John Lewis, to name a fewHeight wasn't profiled and honored enough.
But this unsung heroine was never concerned about accolades. In an interview with Gwen Ifillan African-American journalist and television newscaster for PBSabout 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 rights as she did eighty-plus years championing race and gender rights.
As president 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, AIDSfor 40 years ( 1957-1997 ) , 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 ( ENDA ) faced 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 ministersespecially those of the civil-rights era, claiming to have marched and worked with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther Kingvehemently denied the gay-liberation struggle as a civil-rights issue Height, in her acceptance speech at the 1997 HRC national dinner, 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 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 that catapulted King onto a national stage, didn't have a speaking role at the march because of homophobic sentiments, Heightthen-president of the National Council of Negro Women and one of the march's chief organizers and a prizewinning orator herselfdidn'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.
Height said, "My being seated there had some very special meaning because women had been trying to get a woman to speak on the program, 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 1912before women had the right to vote in 1920 and when Jim Crow America was still very much aliveHeight confronted not only sexism but racism as well. 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. Not knowing 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.
Given 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, we realize that we are not only the agents of change in society, but also the moral leaders we have been seeking.
And for that we give her thanks.