Celebrating Dorothy Irene Height and the Other Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

Happy 102nd Birthday, Dorothy Height

Ask most elementary school students today, and they could tell you a few leaders of the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X. But the movement was hardly championed by these three figures alone. Many change-makers, however, have gotten lost in the pages of history.

Google paid homage to one of these unsung heroes Monday with a Google Doodle honoring Dorothy Irene Height on what would have been her 102nd birthday. Here’s a look at what Ms. Height contributed to the civil rights movement, as well as a look at a few other lesser known, but vitally important, civil rights advocates.

Dorothy Height

From organizing anti-lynching protests as a high school student in 1930s Pennsylvania to working as a caseworker for the YWCA to helping organize the iconic March on Washington, Dorothy Height was a quiet but immensely powerful advocate for social justice issues over a nearly 80-year career. She started as a social worker in New York, after completing her bachelor and masters degrees at New York University. (She was first admitted to Barnard College, but was turned away because they had already met their black student quota for the year, though the school awarded her with an honorary degree in 2004.) She subsequently started the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice, served as president of the National Council of Negro Women, and implemented programs like the “pig bank,” which gave poor families pigs (a valuable gift). In addition, she kick-started interracial dialogue and celebrations of African-American culture throughout the country. Height also made waves in the women’s rights movement. Along with feminist pioneers Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, she helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus in the 1970s.

Though her work was instrumental in the effectiveness of these movements, she was largely cut out of the spotlight due to her race (in the women’s movement) and gender (in the civil rights movement). She passed away in 2010, but not before gaining recognition for her years of quiet, hard work: she was an honored guest at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

Claudette Colvin

Many know the case of Rosa Parks, but another young woman stood her ground (or held her seat, rather) in protest of Alabama’s segregated bus laws about nine months earlier. In March 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin and three friends were told to change seats so one white woman could sit down. While Ms. Colvin’s three friends got up and moved, she remained seated, letting the bus driver know it was her “constitutional right” to keep her seat. Later, two police officers came on board and arrested her. She was subsequently charged with violating segregation law, disorderly conduct, and assault and battery on a policeman. She maintained there was no assault and that the police officers harassed her. The Montgomery bus protests began in December 1955, when Rosa Parks made her stand, and in 1956, Colvin was asked by the NAACP to be a part of a lawsuit with three other women against Alabama’s bus segregation law. This became known as Browder vs. Gayle. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of those women, and the law was struck down.

Some were wary about including Colvin in the lawsuit because she became pregnant soon after the arrest, yet never married. She claims her role in the bus boycotts also labeled her as a “troublemaker” and caused her employment problems. However, she eventually got a job in New York, and today says her family is where it is because of those early days of protest. “None of [my children or grandchildren] are in the criminal justice system, and that’s a blessing,” she told Essence Magazine in August. “Although there is still a lot of work to be done, you could say my family did reap the benefits of Dr. King’s dream.”

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Source: Alaska Dispatch | Karis Hustad, The Christian Science Monitor

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