An Embarrassing Admission

It’s embarrassing to think that I didn’t pay attention to my own history. When I reflect on the history of civil rights or women’s rights, I have painfully ignored many of the women and men who helped secure my liberties and freedoms in this country. Sometimes, the past was just so hurtful; I chose ignorance instead of inquisition. Oh, to be sure, there are standouts that made a impact on my psyche such as Sojourner Truth and her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech. But, there are so many more women that I have ignored. Unfortunately, Dorothy Height was one of those women.

On April 10, 2010 Dorothy Height died. She was described as a civil rights leader, president of the National Council of Negro Women, and the only woman to stand on the podium as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous I have a Dream speech in 1963.

The only woman.

I have seen the picture hundreds of times, but before, it only showed men. It is only when the focus is expanded do you see Dorothy.

There she is pulled forward, a bit apart from the rest of the crowd, pointedly looking to her right at MLK as he speaks. It is a Mona Lisa expression; a look that holds thousands of thoughts in one simple smile. It seems that she is standing there as a dare.

Mary McLeod Bethune is another woman I have embarrassing ignored. In fact, it is Mary who founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935.  Dorothy, like Mary, also counseled Eleanor Roosevelt on issues relevant to black women and men.  Mary was born in 1875  and died in 1955. Two years after Mary’s death, Dorothy became president of the NCNW and remained in that position until 1997. The NCNW’s mission is to advance the quality of life for African American Women. Mary believed that by advancing the causes of black women, you will advance everyone. (Wow!)

Mary’s history is also storied; she was a member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet and the founder of a school for girls that eventually became Bethune-Cookman University.

Mary had a mentor in Lucy Craft Laney, a former slave who founded Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia. Lucy’s educational philosophies influenced Mary and her drive to educate black women. (Thank you!)

I have read that women do not make very good mentors. We will only take someone under our wing for a short time, but very often kick them out of the nest before they are ready or before they become a threat to our sense of accomplishment. These women, the ones that I have tried to ignore because they looked so harsh or unfashionable in pictures, are my mentors.  For ALL women, the foundations have been laid before us by others who worked so hard so that we could live our dreams.

Their work and their lives deserve attention. We won’t make it on our own.

Read: Dahleen Glanton's article in the Chicago Tribune for more information about Dorothy Height and other women civil rights leaders.