The last week has claimed the lives of two giants of the Civil Rights struggle, Rev. Benjamin Hooks and Dorothy Height, who died early this morning. Both made outstanding contributions to the African American freedom struggle. But Dorothy Height, who had the longer life, leaves a tremendous void in the hearts of civil rights activists.
For progressives, Height, who headed the National Council of Negro Women for four decades, was the consummate activist-leader and certainly the preeminent role model for leaders who want to comport themselves with dignity, humility and energetic dedication to a great cause. MLK, along with FDR, and every subsequent Democratic President sought and valued her counsel and wisdom.
As a lower-level functionary in a civil rights organization, I once sat in as a note taker more than anything else, in a conference call joined by a half-dozen nationally-known civil rights leaders. The topic will remain confidential, out of respect for the participants’ privacy. What I remember many years later is the sudden, hushed silence that came when it was Height’s turn to speak. The unspoken subtext in that silence was, ‘OK everyone has had their say, now let’s all pipe down and hear what wisdom has to say.’ Height did not disappoint. In clear, measured terms she summarized the various arguments’ pros and cons and recommended the course of action that was adopted without argument. I got the impression that all of the participants regarded her as their best thinker.
The Washington Post report on Height’s death featured a couple of wonderful quotes by Height worth sharing and remembering, both of which have some applications for Democratic strategy :
“If the times aren’t ripe, you have to ripen the times.”
Stop worrying about whose name gets in the paper and start doing something about rats, and day care and low wages. . . . We must try to take our task more seriously and ourselves more lightly.
Height never married or raised a family. Her life was given to serve the disadvantaged and forgotten. I know of no modern-day leaders who command the same kind of universal respect and admiration as did Height, who leaves behind a powerful example of selfless, dignified leadership for a more decent society.