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Dorothy Height: The "Godmother" and Unsung Leader of the Civil Rights Movement

Dorothy Height was the "the only woman at the highest level of the Civil Rights Movement," though her contributions are largely unknown today.

When Dorothy Height showed up at Barnard College in 1929 with her admission letter in hand, she was told by a college dean that they had already reached their quota of "two Negro students per year." Height, who had just graduated with honors from an integrated high school in Rankin, Pennsylvania, says that she was crushed, recalling, “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep for days." Unwilling to defer her dreams, she visited New York University with her Barnard acceptance letter and they admitted her on the spot. It was this determination that would drive Height through the following decades as she became, as President Barack Obama observed, "the only woman at the highest level of the Civil Rights Movement — witnessing every march and milestone along the way."

Born in 1912, Height was socially and politically active beginning in her teens, participating in several anti-lynching campaigns. As a high school senior, she demonstrated a talent for public speaking, even winning a national oratory competition that included a college scholarship. She graduated from NYU with a master's degree in educational psychology in 1933 and began working as a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department. She joined the National Council of Negro Women at the age of 25 to become active in civil rights activism, and in 1957, she was named its president — a position she would hold for the next forty years.

In that role, she organized "Wednesdays in Mississippi," a group that brought black and white women from the North and South together to create bridges of understanding across regional, racial, and class lines. Height often advised national political leaders on civil rights issues, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson, and she was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.

For decades, Height had a far-reaching impact on the Civil Rights Movement, particularly in terms of encouraging women's involvement in civil rights activism; however, her efforts were rarely recognized by the media at the time or in history books today. In his memoir, civil rights leaders James Farmer included Height among the "Big Six" leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, alongside such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, but observed that sexism led to her contributions being frequently ignored.

Barnard College officially apologized to Height in 1980, and granted her their highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction. In 2004, they also made her an honorary alumna of the college. For her part, Height said in an interview that her rejection at Barnard taught her "that there is no advantage in bitterness, that I needed to go into action, which is something I have tried to follow since.” Before she died at the age of 98 in 2010, she said, "I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom. I want to be remembered as one who tried.”

Books About Women of The Civil Rights Movement

The Story Of Ruby Bridges

The Story Of Ruby Bridges

Written by: Robert Coles
Illustrated by: George Ford
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

To kids today, the idea of a child having to be escorted to school by armed guards to protect her from an angry mob is shocking, but 6-year-old Ruby Bridges faced exactly that in 1960. After a judge ordered that Ruby should attend the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School, parents withdrew their children and held angry protests in front of the school. This compelling depiction of the child who became a civil rights hero just by attending first grade is now available in a special anniversary edition, which includes an updates afterword about Ruby's ongoing life and legacy.

Coretta Scott

Coretta Scott

Written by: Ntozake Shange
Illustrated by: Kadir Nelson
Recommended Age: 4 - 9

Many people know her only as Coretta Scott King, but she holds her own place in Civil Rights history for her work both before and after her husband's death. In this poetic picture book, Ntozake Shange captures her childhood — including defining moments like walking five miles to the colored school while the white kids' bus showered her with dust — to the marches at Selma and Washington, and ends with stirring images of protesters set to lines from the gospel song "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round." This evocative book is a powerful way to introduce this key figure of history. Kids can learn more in Coretta Scott King: I Kept On Marching for ages 7 to 10.

A Girl Named Rosa: The True Story of Rosa Parks

A Girl Named Rosa: The True Story of Rosa Parks

Written by: Denise Lewis Patrick
Illustrated by: Melissa Manwill
Recommended Age: 6 - 8

How did Rosa Parks grow up to be brave enough not just to keep her seat on a bus, but also to make contributions to the Civil Rights Movement over decades? This book from American Girl's new biography series follows Parks through her childhood, highlighting the defining moments that shaped her character and led to the one history-making moment that most people remember first. In addition, the book includes a timeline, a glossary, and a story about a noteworthy modern girl who is following in Parks' footsteps! This early chapter book about Parks is a great choice for emerging readers. For more resources about this civil rights hero, visit our Rosa Parks Collection.

Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters

Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters

Written by: Andrea Davis Pinkney
Illustrated by: Stephen Alcorn
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

Ten women who contributed to the fight for equal rights, from Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman during the time of slavery to Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height during the Civil Rights era, each get their own profile in this inspiring book. Andrea Davis Pinkney's text bursts with admiration for these dedicated campaigners for abolition, desegregation, and women's rights, while her use of colloquialisms and vivid description will have kids flipping the pages to find out what happens. Each profile is accented by a dramatic, stylized portrait from Alcorn. This lively book will bring history to life for young readers.

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement

Illustrated by: Ekua Holmes
Recommended Age: 9 - 12

"I am sick and tired of being sick and tired", Hamer once famously proclaimed, and that sentiment drove her to be a champion of civil rights for over two decades. Her booming oratorical voice and her signature song "This Little Light of Mine" became a key part of the movement, including the Freedom Summer of 1964; her speech at the Democratic National Convention aired on national news despite interference from President Johnson and spurred people to action. Told in the first person, this book's lyrical text and collage illustrations depict the perseverance and courage of this heroic woman.

Rosa Parks: My Story

Rosa Parks: My Story

Recommended Age: 9 - 13

Tweens can learn the story of Rosa Parks in her own words in this compelling autobiography! Parks' word provide a fresh take on both her famous act of defiance on a Montgomery bus and the many other contributions she made to the Civil Rights movement. In her stirring story, she tells of a childhood listening warily for members of the Ku Klux Klan in the night; time as a secretary for the NAACP; and the experience of becoming a symbol to a nation-wide movement. This book provides a more complex picture of both Parks herself and of the Civil Rights movement as a whole.

Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories

Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories

Written by: Ellen S. Levine
Recommended Age: 10 and up

In every civil rights battle, children and teens took their parts too. This book collects the stories of thirty African Americans who were children or teens during the 1950s and 1960s. Each of them describes what it was like to grow up in a segregated America, how it felt to participate in protests, sit-ins, and school integrations, and the realities of the hatred, violence, and legal threats they faced as they did so. These powerful stories serve as a reminder that it took everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, to fight for the rights African-American people deserved.

Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir

Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir

Written by: Dorothy Height
Recommended Age: Adults

Dorothy Height was part of every major victory in the fight for Civil Rights, but she received little public recognition. In her memoir, Dr. Height tells the story of a life dedicated to her cause, from teenage years at anti-lynching protests to her decades of service as the president of the National Council of Negro Women. She advised multiple presidents and members of troubled black communities, marched in rallies, and knew nearly every major figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Well-written and powerful, this memoir of a dedicated and optimistic, yet little known, figure from the civil rights era provides a new perspective to those who think they know the whole story.

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