Lady With a Cause

Book cover
Open Wide the Freedom Gatesby By Dorothy HeightPublic Affairs. 301p $26

Dorothy Height thinks of her life as a unity of circles. Some are concentric, others overlap, but they all connect in some way. Sometimes the connections don’t happen for years. But when they do, I marvel. As in a shimmering kaleidoscope, familiar patterns keep unfolding.

Too well-bred to complain and too reticent to tell all, at 91 years of age the civil rights activist Dorothy Height has written a memoir about her life in public service and her commitment to justice for all people. Her childhood encounters with racism forged a determination in her to behave with grace and dignity no matter what the circumstances.

Like many Negroes of their generation, her parents were part of the great migration from the rural South to the industrial North. The Heights hoped to provide a better life for themselves and a good education for their daughter. They moved from Richmond, Va., where her father worked as a building and painting contractor and her mother as a nurse, to Rankin, Pa., where both parents had to start over in their chosen professions. Her mother, unable to find immediate employment as a nurse, worked briefly as a domestic.

Dorothy thrived academically and graduated from high school in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression. Her goal was to attend Barnard College and go on to become a doctor. She was horrified to learn that the university had a quota of two Negro students per year, and two others had already taken the spots. She was told, You are young enough to wait for next year. Having earned a scholarship from the Elks, she was not willing to postpone her education another year. Her sister and brother encouraged her to look elsewhere. Height was accepted on the spot at New York University and from that day forward, she writes, [I] have loved every brick of that university.

As an undergraduate, the author lived in Harlem with her sister Jessie. They had the good fortune to live next door to the Mills Brothers (a quartet) and the Nicholas Brothers (dancers). W. C. Handy took Height under his wing, and they visited clubs, hearing all the great jazz players of the time. She loved the Cotton Club; the sounds of Fats Waller, Eubie Blake and Nobel Sissle; and the arias from Rigoletto.

Along with her fellow black students, she frequented the discussion clubs in vogue during the 1930’s. During the height of the Harlem Renaissance, they attended lectures by Dr. W. E. B. DuBois and Adam Clayton Powell and poetry readings by Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. The students in the clubs formed lifelong attachments, and several went on to become political figures and social activists.

After earning her undergraduate degree in three years, Height still had one year left on her scholarship, which she was allowed to use for graduate studies. While taking day courses in educational psychology, she was also taking evening courses in pharmacy. Her desire for a career in medicine faded once she started working with medications, measurements and weights. She then determined once and for all, My interest was not really in medicine but in serving people...social work was the right field for me.

Her degrees, friendships and desire to help others opened opportunities to work with the W.P.A and the Brownsville Community Center. In addition to performing her paid duties, she found time to become an active volunteer and leader in the United Christian Youth Movement. With each job and volunteer position, Height formed alliances that withstood the tests of time. She met people who challenged one another to talk about social, political and religious convictions. They discussed the effects of religion, faith, the ways of the world and how to change the world through action. Believing in a collective responsibility, she learned to put her personal ambition aside for the betterment of the cause.

Height’s soothing manner, willingness to listen and diplomacy garnered attention. She was a representative at Oxford University on behalf of the World Conference of Christian Youth, worked for the Harlem Y.W.C.A. and the Phylllis Wheatley Y.W.C.A. in Washington, D.C., met Eleanor Roosevelt and met Mary McLeod Bethune, who told her: The freedom gates are half ajar. We must pry them fully open. Their meeting in 1937 set Height on her life’s work, and she never deviated from her course. Seemingly ubiquitous, she was the only woman present in the decision-making councils of the civil rights leadership, counseled presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton and headed the National Council of Negro Women for 41 years. She sat onstage with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivered his I Have a Dream speech and was present at the Million Man March. Her passion and self-sacrifice have been extraordinary.

Height seems to have been unimpressed by the limelight and recognition. Open Wide the Freedom Gates offers no great scandals or behind-the-scenes intrigue. This is a lady who will not stoop to gossip or provide tabloid revelations. She generously and graciously gives credit where credit is due, praising every person who ever helped her raise awareness or money. Having reached an age where most people would be content to rest on their laurels, she is still urging young people to get an education, reminding Americans enforcement of the civil rights laws that were passed in the sixties is still inadequate, and, as a way of opening dialogue, encouraging diverse communities to acknowledge that racism exists.

A modest woman who never forgot God, her parents or her family and friends, she continues to believe in the possibility of humanity being an unrelenting force working for equality and justice until the freedom gates are fully open. Sad to say, that is a life’s work.

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