By Rhonda Bishop
Policy Associate, Education and Young Women Engagement, YWCA USA
Many remember the iconic wave and the infamous “I Have a Dream” speech. Some may even remember the solemn faces standing stoically behind Dr. King, looking out over 250,000 peaceful protesters gathered on the National Mall. Even fewer can remember the women who stood alongside the podium on that humid August day. The noticeable absence of women speaking on that podium serves as an uncomfortable reminder to all of us: the same movement that called for the end of racial discrimination had within it a blatant undertone of male chauvinism and gender discrimination.
As the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary March on Washington draws to a close, we must continue to educate those around us about the struggles that existed (and still exist) for female civil rights activists. Despite the fact that women spearheaded the Birmingham Bus Boycott, galvanized the “freedom rides” and led sit-in demonstrations, men controlled the leadership of major organizations and used their influence to delegate women into secondary roles within the civil rights movement. Many women resigned themselves to these roles, but a few dared to challenge the patriarchal culture. And, one woman rose from the ranks to be one of the greatest civil rights activists in American history: Dr. Dorothy Irene Height.
Born in 1912, Dr. Height received her education from New York University, having been turned away by Barnard College because it already had its “quota of two black women.” She joined the Harlem YWCA in 1937, and her commitment to advocating for better working conditions for black domestic workers garnered the attention of other prominent female activists.
She rose quickly through the ranks of the YWCA, and during her tenure influenced the YWCA to become actively involved in the civil rights movement by serving as a sponsoring agency of the 1963 March on Washington. In 1965, she was appointed as the National Director of the Center for Racial Justice and tirelessly worked within the YWCA to desegregate all levels of the organization.
Despite being selected as a key organizer for the 1963 March on Washington, Height was marginalized within the male-dominated planning committee. She and other influential women within the movement were denied opportunities for substantive speaking roles and were pacified through a limited, last minute program acknowledgment.
Having experienced dual discrimination, it wasn’t long before Height met famed educator Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), and accepted Bethune’s invitation to join NCNW in support of women’s rights. Bethune’s significant influence on Dr. Height was evident throughout her life, and the two maintained a life-long friendship until Bethune’s death.
Under the watchful leadership of Bethune, Dr. Height was a true visionary who pioneered advocacy to bend in understanding the dual oppressiveness that existed for women of color. The YWCA served as a catalyst in Dr. Height ’s mission to strengthen the intersection of race and gender within the social justice movement. Today, the YWCA continues to carry Dr. Height’s vision forward through national racial justice programming, our mission statement, the annual Dorothy I. Height Racial Justice Award, and our unwavering commitment to women and their families.
It is one of my proudest accomplishments to be working with the YWCA, where Dr. Height invested so much of her passion for helping others. Her legacy has inspired me to, with grace and dignity, affect change where I see it’s needed and to commit myself to a life of civic service.
One of my favorite quotes is from Mary Mcleod Bethune, who wrote poignantly as she neared the end of her life:
“I leave you love. Love builds. It is positive and helpful. It is more beneficial than hate. Injuries quickly forgotten quickly pass away. Our aim must be to create a world of fellowship and justice. ‘Love thy neighbor’ is a precept which could transform the world if it were universally practiced.” (A Legacy of Love: Last Will & Testament)
Dr. Height would often recite Bethune’s wise words. I sincerely believe that both women left a legacy filled with love—pure, purposeful love that deserves recognition and acknowledgment for the sacrifices that they endured during the civil rights era.
I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Height during a children’s play thrown in her honor. She was dressed impeccably with her signature extravagant hat. It was Dr. Height’s legacy of love that gave me the courage to approach her. Although I was hesitant at first, I walked up to her, bent down and whispered in her ear: “I leave you love.” Her eyes twinkled as she slowly nodded her head and smiled.
The next time you reflect on the 1963 March on Washington, think about the women who were seated on the podium that day, who were loyal and dignified despite the humiliation of being denied recognition in a movement they helped lead. Let us honor them today and every day.
Rhonda Bishop, a native of Michigan, is an education policy associate at YWCA USA. A graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., Rhonda majored in journalism and has been navigating the post-graduate voyage ever since.