Remembering Dorothy Height

BY Gwen Ifill  April 20, 2010 at 3:59 PM EDT

I was always thoroughly intimidated in Dorothy Height’s presence.

It’s not because she was regal or holier-than-thou. It’s that she was neither of those things. And somehow, she should have been. Could easily have been.

In the news business, we typically refer to people by the title “Doctor” only if they are physicians. But for Dr. Height, I will have to make an exception. That’s all any of us ever called her. And she referred to us as Miss or Mrs. as well. It would be disrespectful to stop now.

Much of what was so amazing about Dr. Height, who died this morning at the age of 98, was her sheer indefatigability and her grace. She may have witnessed the worst and the best of how America grappled with race and gender conflict during her near century-long life span, but she always managed to say what she had to without sounding bitter.

Instead she simply demanded what she declared was due – for women and children and African Americans. Equal pay, housing and education.

She didn’t mind calling herself a feminist, but she refused to fall into the trap of having others define her. She was a lady from head to toe. I never saw her head uncovered. She wore elaborate, beautiful hats everywhere – the kind with huge brims, bows and flowers that matched her suits. (The story of her life was once produced for the stage with the title “If This Hat Could Talk.“) She managed to be old-fashioned, even as she demanded new-fashioned justice.

Perhaps it was that genteel, almost prim outward presence that allowed her to get audiences with presidents, and to get a seat at the civil rights table at a time when so many of the movement’s other female leaders were relegated to supporting roles.

But Dr. Height had a will of steel, and this too, she passed on to the many who admired her – from Maya Angelou and Bill Cosby to Ronald Reagan and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The world viewed through her life experience (captured in her 2003 autobiography “Open Wide the Freedom Gates“) was a remarkable one.

She won a scholarship to Barnard College for her oratorical skills, but was turned away because the school had already filled the two slots set aside for African Americans. (She went to New York University instead, graciously returning to Barnard to accept an apology and the college’s medal of distinction in 1980.)

She watched “Raisin in the Sun” author Lorraine Hansberry demand an apology from Malcolm X after he criticized her for marrying a white man.

She met a 15-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., who impressed her even though he was 10 years away from the Montgomery bus boycott that would catapult him onto the national stage.

When Dr. Height called, you answered. I don’t know anyone who had the nerve to turn her down. And although she spent many of the final years of her life largely unable to walk, it would be inaccurate to say she was “confined” to a wheelchair. Whether it was making her way around the National Mall for the annual Black Family Reunion or ascending – yes, regally – to the stage for her Uncommon Heights fund-raising galas, she just did not stop.

Donna Brazile, the political analyst and activist, probably said it best when I talked to her today: “We’re never going to replicate this woman, ever again in life.”