"We African American Women seldom do just what we want to do, but always do what we have to do. I am grateful to have been in a time and place where I could be part of what was needed."
This is the quote inscribed on Dorothy Height's Congressional Gold Medal, Congress' highest honor and one of the many dozens of awards — including the Presidential Medal of Freedom — Height has received over her extraordinary life. The Congressional Gold Medal was presented to her on March 24, 2004, her 92nd birthday. A few days ago, as Height celebrated her 94th birthday at a National Council of Negro Women awards gala dinner honoring women trying to follow in her footsteps — Radio One's Cathy Hughes, Young & Rubicam's Ann Fudge and Bennett College President Johnnetta Cole, Ph.D. — she repeated those words.
She has been and is an extraordinary lantern and role model for me and for millions of women and remains a determined, long-haul social change agent blessed with uncommon commitment and talent. Her fingerprints are quietly embedded in many of the transforming events of the last six decades as Blacks, women and children pushed open and walked through previously closed doors of opportunity.
Even as a young girl, her speaking skills stood out; she attended New York University in part with a $1,000 scholarship from a national oratorical contest sponsored by the Elks Club. She completed her bachelor's and master's degrees together in four years, and went on to do postgraduate studies at Columbia University and the New York School of Social Work.
On Nov. 7, 1937 — which Height remembers as the day that changed her life — she was the 25-year-old assistant director of the Harlem YWCA. Height had been chosen to escort First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to a National Council of Negro Women meeting, and there she met the council's founder, the legendary Mary McLeod Bethune.
Bethune was very impressed with Height, and invited her to begin working with the council in addition to her role in the YWCA leadership. She became Height's close friend and mentor, and in 1957 — two years after Bethune's death — Height became the council's president, a position she held until 1998. She is now the president emerita and chair of the council's executive committee.
During the civil rights movement, while so many women were playing vital roles that weren't featured in the spotlight, Height was always up front with a seat at the table. She was often the only woman in the room with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the rest of the "Big Six" group of leaders as they planned many of the movement's key strategies. She was on the stage — and should have spoken — at the historic March on Washington.
Height has always understood how African Americans' needs connect to a larger global mission as well. She has participated in conferences and leadership training sessions and on official delegations around the world, and from the White House to the United Nations, her expertise on civil rights, women's rights and human rights has always been in demand. I was moved this week to hear and learn from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia's and Africa's first woman president, about Height's leadership efforts for Liberia since 1955.
Through it all, Height's intellect and strength have remained as sharp as her signature sense of style. A new musical based on her life is called If This Hat Could Talk, and anyone who knows Height and her trademark gorgeous hats understands just how they chose that title. When she was awarded her Congressional Gold Medal, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., began her tribute by saying she had known Height for more than 30 years.
"Just as in those long ago days, today once again, Dr. Height is the best-dressed woman in the entire room," Clinton said.
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund.