Dr. Jessica Johnson: Height was at forefront of civil rights

As Women’s History Month celebrations continue, my column this week focuses on Dr. Dorothy Height, who former President Barack Obama called the “godmother” of the civil rights movement.

My generation probably remembers Height best for strategically reaching out and encouraging us to commit to social activist work as we were coming of age during the 1990s. By this time, Height was in her 80s, but she was still tirelessly working to help those struggling to find better job opportunities in Washington, D.C.’s urban areas while advocating for more support to assist young people battling the drug epidemic in poor and working-class communities.

When she passed away at age 98 on April 20, 2010, she left a distinguished legacy that included having led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years. Throughout her life, Height was honored with numerous accolades, which included being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.

Height’s lifelong accomplishments are well documented in many famous photos from the civil rights movement, where she was at the forefront with great men such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Morris Dosewell, Whitney M. Young Jr. and James Farmer.

Perhaps one of the most well-known snapshots is the 1963 photo, where Height looks on from the platform in front of the Lincoln Memorial as Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Height was one of the organizers of the march, and I’m sure many elementary school kids who may have seen this image in class while learning about African-American history figures probably wondered, “Who is that Black lady in the background?”

This question is also likely raised by older students seeing the classic photo of Height looking on as President John F. Kennedy signed the 1963 Equal Pay Act, along with viewing the still shot of her humbly smiling as she received the Citizens Medal Award from President Ronald Reagan in 1989.

I think one of the most treasured images of Height is an office photo that she took with her mentor, Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of the NCNW and Bethune-Cookman College, which is now a university. Bethune was able to impart the wisdom and knowledge she attained from decades of leadership in government, humanitarianism and higher education into Height.

Bethune was shattering glass ceilings as early as the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt appointed her as the director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. Height took Bethune’s mantle and ran with it, later pouring herself into social justice work as a leading voice for women.

One of Height’s distinctive attributes that I most admire is that she was never concerned about being in the spotlight. Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, CEO and co-founder of Skinner Leadership Institute, wrote in a moving 2010 tribute that (Height’s) focus was never on being the only African American or woman in meetings with well-known leaders. … She added an air of dignity and ‘somebody-ness’ to every occasion as if to represent both in style and substance, the left out, the locked out and the last to benefit in society because they mattered so much to her and to the God she served.”

Williams-Skinner praised Height for following the servant-leader example of Christ and always attending to the needs of those most vulnerable. Height learned godly service at a young age growing up in Emmanuel Baptist Church in Rankin, Pennsylvania, where her father was a deacon, choirmaster and Sunday School superintendent. Height’s mother encouraged her to use her academic skills to help other children succeed and not attempt to outshine them.

This nurturing in service resulted in Height’s life embodying 1 Peter 4:10, in which the Amplified version says, “Just as each one of you has received a special gift (a spiritual talent, an ability graciously given by God), employ it in serving one another as (is appropriate for) good stewards of God’s multi-faceted grace.”

God’s grace truly followed Height as she was a pivotal influence in major civil rights initiatives. The most valuable lesson we can learn from her is to stop worrying about who gets the credit when we give of our time and resources in service. If we are sincere in what we’re doing, as Height modeled for us, we will reap our rewards.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.