MARGARET WARNER: Now a book conversation with a legend of the civil rights movement. Dorothy Height has been fighting for racial equality for more than six decades. A consultant to presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton, she has been the head of the National Council of Negro Women for 41 years. Gwen Ifill talked to her recently about her new memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates.
GWEN IFILL: Dr. Height, thank you for joining us.
DOROTHY HEIGHT: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: In the introduction to your book, the poet and author Maya Angelou writes that black women often feel bound on all sides by the seeming immutable laws of racial and sexual discrimination. Did you ever feel that way in your life?
DOROTHY HEIGHT: Quite often. Because I think it is hard to believe that one can grow up from the earliest age, have the experience of being conscious that you are both black and you are a woman.
GWEN IFILL: Did you have a mission that you felt that you always had in life?
DOROTHY HEIGHT: Well, you know, from my early childhood, I've seemed to always have something to do. I was always very busy. But from my teenage days, I had a feeling that somehow or other there was something for me to do and I grew up in a family and in a community and a church where all of that was stressed. And I took it seriously.
GWEN IFILL: The most interesting thing about the things that you took seriously in your life are the people you met along the way. I just want to ask you about a few of them. Mary McCleod Bethune.
DOROTHY HEIGHT: In 1937, I was on the staff of the Harlem YWCA. And I had this assignment to escort Mrs. Roosevelt into a meeting Mrs. Bethune was holding. It turned out to be the meeting of the National Council of Negro Women. And as I was bringing Mrs. Roosevelt out, Mrs. Bethune asked me my name and I told her, and she said, "Come back. We need you."
And I went back and before I even got back in the room, she had put me on the resolutions committee of the National Council for Negro Women. And from that day through the rest of those two women's lives they had a great influence on mine. But it really was a time when I really found someone who also, in addition to my mother, helped me to get a sense of who I was and what my responsibility in life was to be.
GWEN IFILL: You also, you mention Eleanor Roosevelt. You became a pretty close adviser of hers as well.
DOROTHY HEIGHT: Yes. In 1938, I was part of ten young people that she had come to her cottage at Val-Kill in Hyde Park to really plan for the World Conference of Youth dealing with world peace to be held at Vassar College. And from that day, it just seemed like it was meant to be because I got to know her and she followed me and helped me all the rest of her life. And then as an adult, as an older adult, I had the opportunity to work with her when President Kennedy appointed us to the status of women's commission and she was a chair.
GWEN IFILL: Martin Luther King, Jr.
DOROTHY HEIGHT: I first met Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was just 15. He'd come to Morehouse College as a gifted student and he was living with a doctor and I was living with Dr. and Mrs. Mayes because at that time I could not be accepted in a white hotel. And Dr. Mayes wanted me to meet his favorite student. And it was really a tremendous experience to sit there and hear a 15-year-old talk about whether he wanted to be a doctor or enter law or medicine. But you had a sense of purpose in him. And ten years later, 1955, he responded when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and we all know the rest is history.
GWEN IFILL: You write about an incident in your book involving Malcolm X and Lorraine Hansberry who was the author of A Raisin in the Sun.
DOROTHY HEIGHT: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: Tell us about that.
DOROTHY HEIGHT: Well, you know, Sidney Poitier really convened a group at his home in Pleasantville, Ossie Davis called it. And it was for Malcolm X, he wanted to meet with the united civil rights leadership group, which was made up of Dr. King and Mr. Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, myself, and John Lewis. And he wanted to let us know that he'd been to Mecca and that he had a change of heart.
He said "we spend all our time talking about the white man and trying to do something about him, and we've been at each other. We need to get together and always be together." And he said, "our unity has to be there, we have to be in unity," and he said, "we have to now focus on our people." And that was a complete change for him. And I'll never forget this strong man saying all of this and he said, "We need to talk with each other."
And Lorraine Hansberry, the marvelous author, was lying on her couch and she lifted her head and she said, "Malcolm, I hear what you're saying, but how do you think I felt when I heard you on television saying that I was a traitor to the race because I married a white man? You didn't know who he was or why I married him or anything. And you never asked me a thing about him."
And it was really a tremendous experience to see this huge, vigorous, articulate, militant man simply look at her and say gently, "Sister, you're right. We all must work together and talk to each other before we talk about each other." And that to me was an experience I'll never forget.
GWEN IFILL: In so many these experiences, you name the names: Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, and Martin Luther King and Ossie Davis and Sidney Poitier. You were always or often the only woman in the room.
DOROTHY HEIGHT: I was the only woman.
GWEN IFILL: Were you a feminist?
DOROTHY HEIGHT: I think I am. I think I was born a feminist because I think all my life I've been proud to be a girl and to be a woman. But it was a very significant experience to be a woman member among those men.
GWEN IFILL: Was there a downside to that?
DOROTHY HEIGHT: Well, it was hard sometimes for them to realize, as in the march on Washington, the importance of women's rights, and I think that we were so absorbed in the racial situation and racism and if you remember at the march on Washington, despite all of our efforts, and many women joined me, we were not able to get a woman to speak. The only female voice heard was a singer, Mahalia Jackson.
But in the basic things that really... we worked through that, and we supported the march, as everyone had to do because it was a tremendous moment in American life.
GWEN IFILL: And one of the few female faces on stage that day was yours. If you look at the photographs of the march on Washington, that was you standing up there on the stage-- there were so few other women.
DOROTHY HEIGHT: Yes. Yes, we ended up, many of us, several of us sitting on the platform. I was there, Mrs. King, Mrs. Abernathy and a few other women. And we accepted that because we saw that the whole objective of freedom and equality and jobs and justice was great enough for us to say "we'll deal with this at another moment" and we did. I don't think today it could be a march and not have a woman speaker.
GWEN IFILL: I don't think you mind me telling people that you're 91-years-old.
DOROTHY HEIGHT: I am.
GWEN IFILL: You have been doing this for your entire life, this kind of work.
DOROTHY HEIGHT: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: When you look at the situation now, especially the affirmative action ruling recently of the Supreme Court, other civil rights issues which some are on the front burner, some are not, are you optimistic or pessimistic now about the state of the movement?
DOROTHY HEIGHT: Well, I'm always an optimist because I have an abiding faith. And I believe that somehow or other the right will prevail and we have to keep working, I think justice is not an impossibility. I think we can achieve it.
But I must say that I am disappointed that in so many ways, we have the laws but we don't have the enforcement. And many who went to jail singing, "we shall overcome"-- they did not have the economic position to take advantage of things. So that there are so many things that are undone and so many ways in which we have advanced but at the same time the poorest seem to be poorer. And the poverty among us seems to be entrenched.
And we at the same time have more blacks and women in high positions, we have the value of the Supreme Court's recent decision on affirmative action. But every battle seems to have to be hard fought and hard and we have to work at it. And that's why I think that we worked with the faith that we can bring about change. But we have to admit that we have a long way to go.
GWEN IFILL: Dr. Dorothy Height, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.
DOROTHY HEIGHT: Thank you. It's been a pleasure being here and I appreciate it so much.