Dorothy Height and the Sexism of the Civil Rights Movement

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Please permit a final few words about Dr. Dorothy I. Height before she's assigned a slot in the Black History Month index. Here are some frank thoughts about her role as a woman of the movement versus a man of the movement.


Although she was a legendary figure, I reject a lot of the phony honorifics as rather condescending. I do not, for example, consider her the "godmother of the movement." Her credentials, background, history, résumé and bona fides are substantial enough and rise above that description, and she deserved every honor ever accorded her.

Nevertheless, to top leaders of the civil rights movement—all men—women were a nuisance and a pain, best kept at a distance so not to challenge their hegemony. The proof was not so secret in those days of sexism and chauvinism. Their credo could have been the James Brown hit, "It's a Man's World."

The civil rights movement was run as a male preserve. I covered its beginning as a rookie reporter at the Atlanta Daily World and its ending as an editor at the New York Times.

Women were there, but kept within defined roles that allowed the men to lead. Ella Baker was the first director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), but was forced out after a brief tenure, and the job was given to the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many of the men were Baptist preachers, whose tenets dictated the primacy of males; some denominations, to this day, prevent women from setting foot in the pulpit.

Some of the women in the lower ranks, the foot-soldiers who not only marched and demonstrated but cooked and cleaned for the leaders, complained of shoddy treatment by the men of the movement. And, the young female workers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) conducted a work stoppage and threatened to withhold sex unless the men opened up top jobs to them.

She was not allowed to speak at the March on Washington in 1963, although she shared the podium with the others and can be seen, in the background, as Dr. King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Had she been given the opportunity on that August day, her remarks would not have needed toning down, as was the case with John Lewis, the SNCC chairman, whose original text was regarded as much too militant. Height seemed to accept that role without complaint, part of her persona and modus operandi. Reportedly, she was more vocal and involved in behind-the-scenes planning and negotiating sessions, which played to her tremendous strengths.


In fact, many of the women were smarter than the men. In 1972, New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm outmaneuvered black male politicians by jumping ahead of them in announcing her candidacy for Democratic nomination for president, just as they were meeting to select one of their own as "favorite son." They were furious with her, but the move made her the first black female to make a serious run for the highest office. As she repeatedly reminded all during the campaign and in her autobiography, she was "unbought and unbossed." The men deemed her very unruly.

There were many black women leaders during the movement at the local level. Gloria Richardson was out front of a militant movement in Cambridge, Md., that shook up Maryland's Eastern Shore. Daisy Bates, head of the Little Rock NAACP, gained fame when she guided the successful integration of that city's public schools. Ruby Hurley was in charge of the NAACP's regional office in Atlanta during the height of the movement. And who can forget the riveting testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer of Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention in 1964?


Dorothy Height joins not only those women, but a long list of strong women of history that includes Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She overcame the men of the movement by outliving them (with the exception of John Lewis): Dr. King, Roy Wilkins, NAACP; A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; James Farmer, Congress of Racial Equality, and Whitney Young, National Urban League. Her longevity was her best revenge.

Paul Delaney, a long-time reporter and editor at the New York Times, will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Black Journalists this summer.