Celebrating Two Women Who Were Doers

Dorothy Height and Evelyn Cunningham were more interested in getting something accomplished than in the next TV appearance.

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As most should know, we recently lost Dorothy Height and Evelyn Cunningham. Both women were in their 90s, but neither would ever have accepted the idea that publicity equals the truth of importance or the truth of important effort. Since the world of public relations has become as influential as fact, people who read little do not know that any good history narrative always contains the names of people one had never heard of, but who were as often invaluable in keeping a blaze brewing under the challenges brought to corruption and injustice, if either or both defined the history of a period.

Height was a lifelong activist who emerged during the era when it was more valuable to get things done than to weep and moan or impotently rattle sabers or any of the things that came about during the '60s, when sadomasochism became big fun for whites who enjoyed feeling guilty for a history of undeniable injustice.

Cunningham had been a nervy reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier. From the 1940s through the 1960s, Cunningham covered so many lynchings in the South that she became known as "the lynching editor." This was pioneering work for two reasons. It was highly unusual for a woman reporter to cover the serious and dramatic topics known as "hard news." It was also dangerous in the building firestorm that became the civil rights movement. Cunningham introduced the movement to her readers, who were thrilled and made to feel the depth of change as things moved in a bloody drama from the limits imposed by intimidation and murder to the heroic responses of eventually victorious marches and boycotts. Cunningham's beat allowed her to become well-acquainted with figures as different as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The King family was given a three-part microscope of close attention, which was appreciated, but Malcolm X was different or surprising in his actual reaction to the fire-eating reporter. Always a favorite saber rattler, Malcolm X was completely taken by Cunningham, perhaps because she exhibited the kind of intellectual independence that he never saw in the cult that made him famous, the Nation of Islam. His wife, Betty Shabazz, came to think that the two might have been having an affair because of how Malcolm X went on and on during private conversations at home about how impressive the reporter was. Cunningham's response was that she did not like to see her heroes in their underwear, which was why nothing ever happened when she was young, fine, super intelligent, and full of style and fire. Like Height, the other tall and brown woman was known for the majesty and spunk of her eye for clothes. Each might make an onlooker think that it was Easter Sunday every single day, when superb dresses and startlingly beautiful hats were normal as the sweet smell of high-quality baked goods.

Dorothy Height had worked for Eleanor Roosevelt, and Cunningham became an assistant to Nelson Rockefeller when he was elected governor of New York. Height was at the forefront of integration and was one of the first to recognize what Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman had in the 19th century: Racial justice and the rights of women were inextricably connected and should never be seen separately.

Both Height and Cunningham were more interested in affecting the quality and comprehension of change than they were hypnotized by media attention. In a time in which the big, bad wolf uses hot air to blow down the house of rationality, we see the legacy of so-called "minority" women like Dorothy Height and Evelyn Cunningham in the revolutionary results of those who came after. They were able to take advantage of openings put in the sky by the Heights and the Cunninghams who knew more room for flight was absolutely necessary. Quick examples are the "smart on crime" campaign led by San Francisco's innovative district attorney, Kamala Harris. There's also the equally revolutionary effect of the leadership that Danielle Moss Lee brings to the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, which has reduced the Central Harlem school dropout rate to far below that of any parallel attempt in the entire nation: 99 percent of public-school students in her program graduate in time and on time. Obviously, educational reform has to go "home to Harlem" for effective inspiration.

There you have it: those who do continue to do, either in person or by example. Dorothy Height and Evelyn Cunningham were not content to weep and moan while sitting on their rusty dusties. They preferred to stand and, as the kids used to say, "bust some moves." There are many paths to glory, but few are as important as intelligent action of the sort exhibited for decades by those two women and all like them.

Stanley Crouch is an essayist and columnist based in New York. He has been awarded a MacArthur, a Fletcher, and was recently inducted into the Academy of Arts and Sciences. The first volume of his Charlie Parker biography will appear within a year.

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