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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Dr. Height, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. Thank you for doing this.
HEIGHT: Glad to be here.
BOND: I want to begin with some questions about Brown v. Board of Education. When you first heard that the Supreme Court had eliminated segregation in schools, what did you think?
HEIGHT: Well, I just thought we had a hit a new high. I was very excited and I suppose, like most people, just really rejoiced that we'd reached that point.
BOND: When you heard about it, what did you think then it would mean over time?
HEIGHT: Well, I really thought it would mean that our schools would be open, that children would be able to go to all schools, doors would be open. I thought it was the end of segregation, that's really what I thought.
BOND: And what has it turned out to mean, so far as you're concerned?
HEIGHT: Well, it's been very disappointing. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and -- it's where, of course, there were no Negro teachers -- and I came to appreciate what it meant to be in a classroom with students, you know, where we were all different races, predominantly children who were foreign-born, however. And it was a very small group of us who were colored. But I thought that here, at last, we have something like that. Because one of the things that I value is what it meant to me to grow up in a school where I had equal chance, I felt, to do whatever I wanted to do, to become something, and that I thought this is what now we had.
It was disappointing to find that immediately there became all of these counter-activities, efforts to not only not move forward, but to push us backwards. And I thought that resistance in itself was so disturbing because it confused the picture, and the -- really, the action was more like this was about bussing and not about school. It was not about openness, but it was about trying to get new privilege to people who didn't deserve it. And that I thought was very detrimental, not just to the children and parents who were involved, but I think to the society.
BOND: Now, you enjoyed an integrated education.
BOND: So in that sense you enjoyed what Brown might have meant?
HEIGHT: That's right. And that's what I thought of now, because -- and I have -- until I was an adult, I had never had a Negro teacher, and so my teachers were interested in me, the parents, boys and girls, all shared things together, and I thought, "Well, this is what school ought to be like." And I thought at last we had it.
BOND: Well, the decision didn't have an effect on your education, but what has it meant to you in the years since '54? How did it affect you?
HEIGHT: Well, what it has done for me, it has made me realize that I had to work harder to try to make its objectives realized. I think it has been a -- it gave a new base, however, for working, because at least we had a way of saying segregation is -- and there is no such thing as "separate and equal." And I think the elimination of that laid the base for all the work that we could do. Until then I think we were working hard, but we were really up against something that was impossible, because segregation was legal. And I think to take that off gave us a base for really working.
BOND: Was this kind of like a stamp of approval of the work you had been doing up to that point, and would do afterward?
HEIGHT: Yes, it gave you a sense that we're on the right track. In fact, I grew up, and even in my religious experience, working with people of different religious backgrounds, with the feeling of the importance of openness and how much each one of us contributes to the other, that there's no superior, no inferior.
BOND: Now, it's no doubt from reading your biography that your parents, your mother, had an enormous effect on your life. How did your parents affect you when you were a kid and later on?
HEIGHT: Well, I think, for one thing, both of my parents were very active in organizations, and I think that's one of the reasons that I have understood the value of organization. But I think my mother was especially helpful to me because she helped me to realize, though I was a good student, I could not just strut around and be proud. That -- she made me understand that I was not in competition with anybody but myself. And so it has made me -- I've had all my life a feeling from that of appreciation of my responsibility to other people.
And I think the other thing is, even in our little community, she helped to prepare me for a world and a country in which there was discrimination. She always said to me, "Hold yourself together. You take care of your -- think your way through." And that has been a very important thing to me. I have never felt the need to push to the head of the crowd, but she helped me to realize that -- because I was always either first or second in my classes, and she would say to me, you know, "What are you doing to help others?"
BOND: I remember a story about a boy who couldn't remember his recitation, and you could remember yours.
HEIGHT: Yes. He had always a short speech, and our pastor's wife reported me because she told my mother that I was usually a good girl, but that I laughed all through this program. And I told my mother, I said, "Here was Herbert, he was trying to make the speech, and he kept saying, 'He is risen, He is risen.' Couldn't remember that it was 'from the dead.' " And I thought that was the funniest thing. And so she suggested -- and I said, "And I have my speech" -- I had one, you know, yard long -- and I said, "And I knew it."
And so she said to me, "Well, perhaps if that's so funny to you, maybe you don't need to be in it." Well, of course, that was like cutting my throat. And she said, "But if you're going to be there, you have to learn you have to help the others, and you could, say, help him with his speech and not laugh at him for what he can't do. But you have to help him." That meant that I turned out to be the official monitor, prompter, and every child would pass their speech to me, and as they went up, I would sit there, and by the time we came to the program, I knew all the speeches.
But what it did for me -- it let me understand, she said, "If you can do yours so much better, then you help him get his done." And that's been a part of my very -- it's even in my bones, I think.
BOND: Now, you said a moment ago how important organizations were to you. Did your mother introduce you to organizations, to organized work?
HEIGHT: Yes. Well, my father was a choirmaster and the superintendent of schools, but he was also in Knights of Pythias and a lot of other things. My mother was very active in the women's club movement. And I was active in little church groups, but then through the club movement she introduced me -- she was president of one of the clubs, and then I was the president of the Emma Jay Morris Circle, which was a junior group of that. So that's how I got active in club work. And it really was very helpful to me because it meant that I traveled with my mother when she went to clubs and went to organizational meetings, as well as the church gatherings all over.
BOND: Give us a picture of what the black women's organized club movement was like when you were a girl. What were the groups? What did they do?
HEIGHT: Well, these were groups that had as their theme, "Lifting as we climb." And those groups -- in fact, there were hundreds of them -- those groups I always said often furnished for our community what the white community had taken for granted. Everyone had a project of feeding the poor, feeding the hungry, home for homeless girls. You had to have a specific service in the community. And it also was that you had to see what you could do with those who needed it most. And I don't think anyone realizes the way in which those clubs -- they sold pies, they baked cakes, they sold chitlin dinners, or fried chicken, or whatever, but always the money was raised to help someone. They gave baskets at Thanksgiving and things of that sort, but over and above that, they sustained programs.
And years later, when I worked in Harlem and there were Florence Crittenton Homes all over the city for white girls, there was not a single bed for a black girl who happened to have been homeless or pregnant and who needed care outside of the Harlem Branch of the YWCA, and the White Rose Club. That was a little house that the club women managed and they kept it. They served girls, they helped girls. I think that was one part of our survival was the way in which those groups were organized. And I was deep in it.
BOND: Now, did this serve as an example for you of how people together accomplish more than one by themselves?
HEIGHT: Yes, working together you could do so much more. And that also that different people had different talents. And I used to note that sometimes people who, you know, may not be able to make a speech about it, but I always said they could bake a cake that would attract the people to come hear the speech. And there was that kind of way in which everybody had a sense that they had a contribution.
BOND: You know, people tell us, scholars tell us, that women -- not black women in particular, women, period -- are more cooperative, and men more competitive. Now, do you find that to be true?
HEIGHT: I find that women are -- women have what I call a kind of a humane sense. They're concerned about what's going on with children, with the sick, with the elderly, and the like, and they -- they have learned, and they will join hands. They might have their disagreements and whatnot, but when it comes down, I always say that women know how to get things done.
BOND: Now, how did you become engaged in the kind of work that you do today? I know your history, but what led you in this path? You go to college, you finish, you become almost instantly engaged in this kind of work. Was this a carryover from your youth?
HEIGHT: Yes, I often say that before I was twenty-five, really, my life was shaped. Because I left Pennsylvania to go to college, and when I was in college, I kept searching for a group. I had been very active. I was president of the Pennsylvania Girls' Clubs; of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. I was active in my church. I was active in my school. I was active in so many different levels. But I was able to make a connection with the Christian Youth Movement. And then in Harlem, where I lived, I was active with Kenneth Clark, and a number of us, Jim Robinson and all, we formed the Harlem Youth Council. I was active with Juanita Jackson of NAACP. We formed the United Youth Committee Against Lynching, and so on. So that even during my college days I was very active in these groups, in the 1930s.
BOND: So in a sense you're recreating the organizational atmosphere that you had left behind in Pennsylvania. Did you find in college that there weren't pre-existing groups that you could join?
HEIGHT: Well, you see, when I went to college, you have to bear in mind I went to college in 1929. And when I got there, I found that the groups that were there didn't accept a black person. In fact, some of them, I was even recruited from some when they saw my grades on the wall, but I was turned away when I got there.
But the interesting thing happened, and that was, at City College there were students like James Robinson, Kenneth Clark, and at Union, there was James Robinson, there was John Morsell, also at City College, a group of us at New York University. And what we did, we found each other and we kind of made our own little group. I belonged to the Ramses, and another one -- each one had a name that represented our African heritage. And we gathered together. We weren't seeing ourselves as a caucus. We were seeing ourselves as needing to find ways to get more understanding of who we were. And so when we had Dr. Du Bois just sit and talk with us or Langston Hughes, we just felt we'd had the best time in the whole world.
BOND: Now, those names you're mentioning, James Robinson and Kenneth Clark and Morsell, these are people all go on to make a name for themselves --
HEIGHT: All go on.
BOND: -- in what you generally could call race work. Did you feel that your generation was destined to do this, or this was your calling or -- ?
HEIGHT: We felt that our -- we helped each other understand that we were in college, and as tough as it was in dark days of the depression, that we had a responsibility. And to me, it was so exciting to be a part of a group where you had, say, James Robinson, who went on to found Crossroads Africa, or Kenneth Clark, who had a role in Brown v. Board of Education, or John Morsell, who became assistant to Roy Wilkinson in NAACP. And Juanita Mitchell -- and if you -- Juanita Jackson, she was then. The time that we spent, and I mean, we worked at this every week. We had the anti-lynching group one time. We were working another time against the chain gang. We had Angela Herndon come to the city.
HEIGHT: And James Robinson wrote a whole worship service around him. We had it at Paul Robeson's brother's church. We put on armbands and with our group called the -- we had the Harlem Youth Council, and we had the Harlem Christian Youth Council. And we would wear armbands when the NAACP would hang out a sign saying, "A man was lynched today." And all we had to do -- we had eighty-eight youth groups, and we would call them and say, "A man was lynched today," and therefore we would go down to Times Square, wear our black armbands and walk around chanting, "Stop the lynching. Stop the lynching." We did not let a week go that we did not meet and chart what we were going to do. I was very active and became at that time president of the United Christian Youth Movement of North America, which had as its slogan, "Christian youth building a new world." So that, you see, we had what I would call the most invigorating kind of experience, and we really worked to feel that we were changing the society.
BOND: Now, you say you had Dr. Du Bois speak. Could -- is it fair to say that what you and the others were doing was an extension of Du Bois' dream for the Talented Tenth?
BOND: Now, of course, he's talking in all his language about men, and I think it's peculiar to the time that he would reference men only. But you had no worry about being included in that?
HEIGHT: No, I never saw -- besides Juanita Jackson, there was Olivia Stokes. There was a number of us. And Lionel Florant and his wife. And it was an -- also, I have to say, it was at a time of the United Front. Because Lionel Florant's wife worked for the Daily Worker, which was a Communist newspaper. So that we had these different political interests, and -- but all of us became more African oriented and more determined to do something about this society, and we believed that we could. We worked for the American Youth Act, which didn't pass, but we joined with the American Youth Congress to kind of get that passed.
BOND: And so the different political tendencies didn't upset anyone, you were willing to join in a popular front, a common front, with anyone.
HEIGHT: Yes. This was the day of the United Front. And it was a day when, I think, we said, "Because we do not absorb each other's philosophies, but we are joined together on one purpose. These are the things we're working on." We worked to get people to vote. We worked with Adam Clayton Powell to desegregate 125th Street and to open up jobs. We worked with A. Philip Randolph, who would say that you had to learn how to be concerned about what working people -- so that I think I learned a lot first-hand about labor relations and about, you know, social justice and economic opportunity from the activities we were doing. And that's why I've often said that by the time I was twenty-five, I already had shaped my life's work. I knew where I wanted to go.
BOND: Now, we've been talking about the things you did in sort of an extracurricular activity. Was there anything you learned in school, in the classroom, that influenced your life?
HEIGHT: Well, I always in the -- I started out with entering the field of medicine. But I -- when I was going to go to Barnard College, and I was rejected there on a quota after I had been accepted. That was --
BOND: They told you they already had two.
HEIGHT: Yes, they had two Negro students, Belle Tobias and Vera Joseph. And so they said I could wait a year and come in when one of them graduated. So I went on to New York University. And so I shifted my interests and I began to study more in -- I took some work in religion, but also in the social sciences.
One of the things that was valuable to me were -- was that I had assignments to work in communities that were, you know, deprived. And when I say the Depression, I mean that was a time when no one had very much. And I had the opportunity to work in the Brownsville Community Centers as a part of my schooling. And I think the other thing I would have to say is that it was in these groups that I belonged to, the United Christian Youth Movement, where we exposed ourselves -- we were exposed to people like Harold Laski and a number of them, who had a social philosophy, who were, I guess you would call them, in many respects, they were social gospel. So that I was getting -- I was doing one kind of study in the daytime and another one on the weekend and evening in these small groups. Because we didn't just go and meet. We had -- we took time, we studied, we read, and even when Kenneth Clark wrote Youth in the Ghetto, some of us were part of his studies of what he was doing right there in the community.
BOND: Now, I get the picture that NYU is just ferment of political action of all kinds; big arguments between Marxists, Socialists, Democrats, and so on. Is that a fair picture?
HEIGHT: That's a fair picture.
BOND: Just a community just bubbling up with ideas and arguments.
HEIGHT: And differences. And you had to learn to know what you stood for. You had to be able to stand up for it, and I found that many a time. And you had people who wanted you to -- they were trying to indoctrinate. But I think it was good for me that I had a certain amount of grounding, but also that it wasn't just emotional, that we were studying. We knew the difference between dialectic materialism and some other philosophies. It was a rich life.
Though we were poor in dollars, I think it was rich in that experience. And I often say to young people today who ask me, "How do we get included?" And I say we have to be like Madame Walker did. She said she got started by giving herself a start. And I think you have to give yourself a start by saying, "What's going on? What's happening to people?" When we saw lynching, when we heard about it, when people like Thurgood Marshall and Walter White and Charles Houston would come into our little groups and tell us things that were happening, we got into action. Nobody had to tell us. That was enough.
BOND: You're describing a world which I'm not sure could exist today.
HEIGHT: No, it doesn't.
BOND: This combination of the place where you were, the depression around you, the ferment in Harlem, agitation against lynching and all these social ills, I don't believe that could occur today.
HEIGHT: No, it's a totally different climate. And that's why I have -- but I find myself finding it hard not to appreciate fully the difference. I say all the time, I don't know what I would do if I were in today's society and seventeen. The only thing I believe I would do, because of the fact that from my childhood I had an interest in things that were going about me -- as an eleven-year-old I helped to integrate my little community center -- so that I always had a sense of driving to try to make things better.
But I don't know, because I go through Harlem now and I just say, "Well, this is a very different Harlem from what I grew up in." Harlem, when I grew up, it was poor but rich. There we had Duke Ellington, we had Sy Oliver, we had all the things that were happening. And there was a way in which people felt the need of each other, and there was -- I think in today's society, it's much more individualistic. You know, young people want to know quickly, "What am I going to get out of it?" And somehow or other, the conditions under which we were living and our own searching for more meaning to our lives meant that for us it was a matter of saying, "What can we do? How can we work to it?" We were more "we" oriented than I see that we are today.
BOND: Both more "we" oriented, but also even as a young girl, willing to take a chance, to integrate the community center, those are signs of leadership. Now, did you think of yourself as a leader when you were doing that, when you were integrating the reading program?
HEIGHT: I didn't think of it as a leader, although I found myself, usually in any group I was always given some special responsibility. But I did think in this way, that we as a group, our little Harlem group, we saw ourselves as sort of having responsibility, and we delegated to each other tasks that they were to work on. I worked on domestic workers; someone else worked on opening up the clinics. Because even in Harlem Hospital we didn't have the things that we needed. So I didn't think of it as "the leader"; it was more like I was given leadership.
BOND: But, nonetheless, you were clearly a leader at an early age and have continued on since then. Can you examine how this impulse to lead--where did this come from? Is it your mother's example, the example of others?
HEIGHT: I think it was my mother's example, my father's example. My father, in addition to being a building contractor and the like, also was the superintendent of the Sunday school and things like that. He and I were always there on time, if no one else. He was what I would say more the manager kind of person who kept stressing "Be on time," you know, "Get yourself properly dressed, do the right thing," etc., etc. But it was my mother who always helped me to relate to needs in a community and to people.
HEIGHT: But it was my mother who always helped me to relate to needs in the community and to people. But one thing that I think was valuable to me was that as a child, as a student in high school -- and that's when I said, my teachers were all white, but they were very -- they saw that I had a potential and they all cultivated it. They always gave me opportunities. The music teacher let me lead the music when she was itinerant, when she could only be there -- she came to us once a month. The other periods of time I had it. My English teacher -- it was she who put me into the impromptu speech contest. And I was relatively shy. I was a good student, but relatively shy. And she worked with me to say that, you know, you have to be able to -- you have good thoughts, but you -- and many times I would sit in class and when she would call on me, she said, "You answer. You have the answer." Well, my mother told me, "Don't show off," so my teacher was saying, "Speak up."
But in between there it was very helpful to me, because she brought me out and she helped me to learn how to stand up and express myself, think on your feet, and the like. So that I think I have to credit the kind of teachers that I had who showed a real interest, along with my mother's, you know, constant -- and constantly making me improve. I remember I used to bring my report card home and she would say, "What haven't you -- you made 92 last time, you only have 91." And I would say, "Well, that's the best grade in the class." And she would say, "I didn't ask you what the class did. I want to know what Dorothy Height did and what caused you to go back."
So -- and I remember one time a teacher came to us in our chemistry class. He was from the University of Pittsburgh, and he came to our high school -- he was our chemistry teacher, and at the end of the semester he gave me an 89. So I went in to him and I said, "Well, my mother won't understand this. I cannot take this grade home. I was wondering, what did I fail in, or what did I do wrong?" He said, "No, you did very good." He said, "You tell your mother I don't give anyone more than 89." Well, I almost wanted to take him home with me, because I knew that my mother would immediately question.
But I think also what was helpful to me was that I always had kind of an inner drive and wanted to go to school, go to college, and I think for me it was helpful that I was able to sign in for an Elks oratorical contest, and my English teacher helped me to prepare. But I think it was that going to the library, studying. It had to be on the Constitution of the United States, and there are many subjects. It could be on slavery in the United States, on the Constitution. I chose the Constitution and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, because after all of my reading -- and I was a great reader -- after all of my reading, that's what I chose. And it was helpful to me to have the teacher, an Irish-Catholic woman, who not only did work with me in school, but she lived down the street from me and she coached me and helped me. But it also helped me -- and it's interesting that I say, until this day, I'm still working on the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. But it was helpful to me to get more than a knowledge of them in a recitation, because it meant that I understood what they meant and what they mean in the Constitution of the United States.
BOND: Now, you mentioned the Elks, which had this oratorical contest.
HEIGHT: It was an Elks contest.
BOND: And have mentioned other groups, the statewide young girls' organization, you were the president -- what were the other neighborhood networks, groups, that impacted you in high school and in college?
HEIGHT: Well, I was a joiner. My mother used to say to me, "Dorothy, if you join anything else, I'm going to take you out of them." I was in a debating society. I liked -- I was in -- my father, being a choirmaster, I was in a lot of musical groups. With two other girls we formed the trio. We sang all over to churches and everywhere. I was very active in sports -- in basketball, I played basketball.
BOND: Playing by boys' rules.
HEIGHT: We played boys' rules. I played girls' rules in high school, and in the evenings I played boys' rules. I loved boys' rules much better than girls' rules.
BOND: Yes, I think people don't know what's the difference, boys' rules and girls' rules? I know.
HEIGHT: Well, the girls' rules, the -- I was a center, and that meant that the court is marked off and you play only within that area. There was a kind of assumption in girls' rules that girls were so delicate they couldn't run the full course. So those who were guards had more territory -- or forwards -- than those who were in the -- as centers. And the advantage in boys' rules was that you could just play at equal -- I was still center, but I could play the whole court.
BOND: Yes. Girls couldn't take more than a couple of steps with the ball. Is that my memory?
HEIGHT: That's right. Yeah, that's right. It was very limiting, very gentle. And that's why I'm so glad now to see that we've broken away from all that.
BOND: Now, in addition to the church providing you with this opportunity to -- what did the church in your community, what did it mean to you? In addition to being an organization that you could perform in, that you could participate in, what did it mean?
HEIGHT: Well, you see, the church was really the basis in the community. It was through the church that I got the opportunity even to speak and so on. But it also meant that we joined with other churches, and I had the opportunity to work not only with my Emmanuel Baptist Church, but with Mount Olivet and with other churches, and we gathered together as -- in churches. As a matter of fact, my little trio, as we moved about and sang in different churches, we made -- we collected new friends and so we became active.
HEIGHT: But the thing I also think was characteristic of those days was the quality of adult -- of caring adults helping you along. I think that was a very important force in my community, that adults in the community felt that they -- well, they had the right to correct you or whatever you wished to do. I remember one time I was on my way to represent my school in a contest, and I was about to step on a streetcar and our pastor's wife called me. She said, "Dorothy Height, where are you going at 10:30 in the morning?" it was. Well, by the time I got off and explained it to her, the car was gone. By the time I got downtown to take the exam, I was too late and I had to come back the next month, which meant that I had to go back and start preparing all over again. So that -- but I would not dare have moved on with her challenging me. I couldn't say, "I'm going -- the high school is sending me downtown." I had to tell that to her. And I think it was the quality of attention so many people in the community gave, and so much encouragement. And I think that's something that has driven me today to be concerned about how we try to create a climate -- I call it a culture of achievement, a kind of climate in which people expect you to achieve, but they help you.
BOND: Now, you're describing what was a fairly common phenomenon in black communities then, and it's lost, for a variety of reasons. How can -- can it be reclaimed? Can it be recreated? Can we create this climate of achievement?
HEIGHT: I think we can. I think that we can have high expectations. When I wrote my memoirs, I dedicated it to my mother's high expectations, but I could have said the high expectations of so many adults. You know, you would meet a person like A. Philip Randolph, and he would say to you, "You have real potential. You have to do something." In other words, people took the time not to just assume it, but they took the time to say to you, "I hope that you will keep working on this."
Or I had an opportunity to be a part of a small group, and they would talk to us about taking responsibility and, you know, standing up on your own, standing up for what you believe in. That, to me, was the heart of it, helping me to see that you had to have your own convictions, that you were not just following along what other people do. And I think that one of the things that we can do today is to take more time with our young people and take some time with helping them understand that they have a potential. It may not always be the same, or the same kind, but whatever it is that they can develop, that they can be what they want to be. They can do a lot if they could just get that sense.
BOND: But still, you said a moment ago that this -- today is so different --
HEIGHT: So different.
BOND: -- than when I was young, when you were young. It's just -- we live in very different worlds now. The nature of some of the economic problems seem more severe than was true in the Depression.
HEIGHT: That's right.
BOND: The spread -- our communities are so much larger than your -- than Rankin was, or than even Harlem was.
HEIGHT: And I did not grow up in the midst of a drug culture. I mean, that's the other thing. So many of the forces in our community now are so overt. The violence, the drugs, all of these are there. But I think that means that it's one of the reasons that I -- we came up in the National Council of Negro Women with the idea of the black family reunion, trying to just lift up values and say, you know, "We're not a problem people, we're simply people with problems." And that our young people have to feel that they are not alone in the community, and that they don't have to be taken in by everything that tags at them.
It is not, however -- and I think many think that in my day there were not forces trying to pull you in another way. I don't think -- I think many young people today think, "Well, you had it easy." But they don't know. They were not the same. I think -- even the lack of money in the Depression made it very hard for -- and I know some of the young people, even, who were in my school, who got caught up in things simply because it was survival. So that I think that the -- when I look at myself and realize that I had twenty-five cents a day to go for my transportation, and my lunch, back and forth to school, in New York City, I look back myself and say, "Well, how did I really do it?" But I did. And I think that many young people today think, "Well, naturally, it was easy for you." No, it wasn't easy. But it was the situation that we felt that drove us to see what we could do about it. It was not just to say, "This is not just about me. Something has to be done that changes the situation."
BOND: You know, in all that you've said, it seems to me that the biggest difference between then and now is that feeling that "I can do something about this."
HEIGHT: "I can do something."
BOND: Why is that missing today?
HEIGHT: Well, I think -- I think we'd have to say some of it is because of the progress we've made. The fact is, we do not have legal segregation, and so it's very hard for people to realize what the struggle has been. It is hard for them to even imagine some of the things that we went through, even during the period of the sixties. All of that seems ancient now. And many people think, you know, the civil rights movement was about Martin Luther King having a dream. So that they live in a different time. They have no connection.
And I think that we have failed this generation in not having them keep connected with their own history, and I think many have no -- they have practically no patience with what they're doing, but that the advances we have made, the doors have been opened. They go through the open doors, they don't know how they got opened. They don't know what the struggle was. That many who could do more, now feel more comfortable. You see, I think that in my day we never got quite comfortable with the situation in which we lived.
BOND: Is there a way you can make people less comfortable, you can cause them to be uncomfortable about today's circumstances? How can you motivate young, older people, to have the kind of commitment that you describe your classmates in New York having, drawing this enormously talented group of people together to do good works? Why don't we see that today? How can you make that happen today?
HEIGHT: I think it's a leadership issue, too. I think that leaders have to bring things within the reach of people, communicate around the issues they understand. Not the broad issues of justice, but the small issues of mandatory sentences. I mean, we have to break it down so they begin to see how the political and social climate in which they live is determining how far they're going to go unless they themselves take hold. If they don't start to do something about it, you know, and that's -- I think that's -- I think we have a need there to rethink the way we encourage and the way we strive to motivate people. I find that -- well, recently I was talking to a group of young people, and they said, "Well, we never realized that." And I said, "Well, have you sat still long enough to listen to it?" Do you see? Now you have to get in between all the different messages they're getting. They're getting messages of all kinds, from music, from all these kinds of forces, so that we -- and from the media and all -- so that I think it means that there is something there that we have to say. Leadership today has to be willing to step out and risk helping to say to young people, "This is the way. Have you thought of this way? And do you see this way as degrading and downward?" I think we have to do that. When I was fourteen I heard a woman recite that poem about a high way and a low way and you could choose. And I was fourteen years old. I didn't sleep all night.
BOND: That was a Pennsylvania state representative.
HEIGHT: A woman who was elected Pennsylvania state representative. And I thought, "That is really something she is saying." And I think that many times young people just need someone and need to be in situations where the leadership dares to speak out the truth, but also speak it out with full respect for the fact that they live in a different day. And you cannot tell them what you -- I can't tell them what I did, because it's a totally different day, but I can certainly help try to share with them what a difference it made in my life to be able to find myself looking at it now and saying I learned the difference between having a job or a position, or being elected to something or appointed to something, and in having my own purpose, sense of purpose, and my own life's work. I learned the difference in that, but I learned that from the groups in which I effectively worked. And I think many of our young people today are out there on their own trying to do it. They need to be a part of organizations that have purposes, of organizations that have defined goals that are related to their goals, and that can often help them find their goal because the way the goals are stated, then objectives. It's a leadership role that is very much needed in our communities, and I think that our young people, I believe, will respond better if we take more of a hand.
BOND: Let me shift gears a little bit here. One thing I noted in looking at your life is what seems to me to be a fairly large amount of international travel for someone of your time and place. Almost immediately after leaving college, you're overseas. What did these trips mean to you?
HEIGHT: Well, it certainly meant to me that when I was twenty-three, I was the president -- the vice president of the United Christian Youth Movement of North America. And there was a conference in England, and I was one of the ten young Americans, two of whom were African American -- two of us -- sent to the World Conference of the Churches in England. Well, to be chaperoned and cared for by Dr. Benjamin Mays and his wife, to be exposed to the greatest leaders in all branches of Christendom, to be -- to hear Dr. [Robert] Tawney teach about equality and what equality meant, to lift that out of what I had learned in my other things, even in my oratorical contests, and to have that kind of exposure, meant that I had -- it gave me an ecumenical experience that has made a difference in my whole life. I don't have any problem with dealing with people of difference. In fact, I love it. But I think I learned so much there, and also about issues like war and peace. In the Oxford meetings, I chose the economic order, and so that's where I studied inequality. But when we listened to all the broad speeches, the Reinhold Niebuhrs and Paul Tillichs and people like that, it opened up a world to me that I didn't even dream of before. So that to have that kind of experience, and then to return home -- that was in August of 1937 -- and to return home in November 1937 and come to the YWCA, where they had seen me at work in the community, invited me, and there to meet Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt all on the same day, meant to me that I just felt there was a purpose for my life, and that I had so much that was unusual in experience, that I had to feel responsible. And from 1937, for the rest of those two women's lives, they were a great influence in mine.
BOND: Now, you go to the YWCA and when you come, it's focused, as one would think, on women -- improving lives for women.
BOND: When you leave, it has changed its focus to focus almost exclusively on eliminating racism. It seems to me that's a big jump.
HEIGHT: Yes. Yeah, when I went in, in 1944 I was a secretary for integration of education, and I had the experience of two years later going to the convention, where the issue was before -- it was really desegregating. And I had Dr. [Benjamin] Mays come, and he said to the group, "If you have a Christian purpose, and I hear so many saying the time isn't ripe, but in light of your purpose, it's your job to ripen the time." That was a helpful thing, because what I tried to do was to bring into the YWCA those who could communicate what was necessary.
From that action, where the YWCA adopted the Interracial Charter, with some leaving because they were very unhappy about it, but the commitment began there, and by 1970, having gone through a lot of different things, in a conference of black women, we came up saying the YWCA had seven purposes, seven objectives, as it came into convention: To eliminate poverty, to eliminate war, to eliminate racism, and it went on and on. But the women, in a conference of five hundred black women -- and that was a risk that I had to take, because even some of the black members said, "Why are you calling for a segregated meeting?"
But the five hundred women met and they said -- I did not have this on an agenda when I went into it -- after three days of looking at it and seeing the role women of color had played, and realizing that they were in an organization which in 1895, when it started with a racial branch, there was not any major group drawn from the large majority population in the country that would have had a black executive and had an institution. So what we were -- what we'd call advanced then was now something we were ready to give up and to say we will work for the full integration of people.
And so we went into the convention and said, "The YWCA wants to thrust our collective power towards the elimination of racism wherever it exists, by any means necessary." Now that, for me, let me see the value of being as a staff person, but also taking the leadership and not trying to do it myself, but bringing in people who could help the YWCA, but also to lift up all of those women from the South and all over who strongly said, "Given our purpose, we cannot tolerate talking about segregation in a society and tolerate it within our own membership." So that's why I have to say that I think organizations like that are very important. But I have to credit the fact -- and as I said, if you look at my bio and you see I entered as the secretary for Interracial Education. After thirty-three years I retired as the director of the Office of Racial Justice. And that shows you the advances that the YWCA movement made.
BOND: Let's talk about Ms. Bethune.
HEIGHT: Oh, yes.
BOND: When did you meet Ms. Bethune?
HEIGHT: Well, in 1937, November the 7th, I was assigned from the Harlem YWCA -- I was new staff -- assigned to escort Eleanor Roosevelt into a meeting Mrs. Bethune was holding, and it turned out to be the meeting of the National Council of Negro Women. And after Mrs. Roosevelt spoke, and she was driving herself on up to Hyde Park, I took her back to her car, Mrs. Bethune said to me, "What is your name?" I told her. She said, "Well, we need you." So I've been back ever since. And from that moment, I don't think there was a week for the rest of her life that I did not have some direct contact. She was a mentor, a tutor, a spiritual advisor, everything.
BOND: So you met these two women at the same time.
HEIGHT: Same day.
BOND: And what about the relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt?
HEIGHT: Well, the next year, 1938, I was one of ten young people Mrs. Bethune -- Mrs. Roosevelt invited to come to Hyde Park, and we spent the weekend with her at Val Kyl Cottage planning for the World Youth Congress. And I became sort of like the chairman of that group. And we worked on how, as American youth -- and the conference was held at Vassar College in 1938 -- how it was we would work with young people coming from all around the world, with her as First Lady, in hosting this conference and in helping to shape it.
But also -- and this again was the time of the United Front, you have to bear in mind, where you had the communist countries, as well, coming into this conference -- so, once again, we had to figure out who we were and what we were standing for, and had to be prepared to stand up for what we believed. But Mrs. Roosevelt was right there every minute, knitting away sometimes, but always advising. And until her death, she was very close to me.
BOND: Now, something you said a moment ago about Ms. Roosevelt, she was driving herself. I can't imagine Mrs. [Laura] Bush driving herself.
HEIGHT: It's hard to believe there was a time when the wife of the President of the United States would drive her own Thunderbird, park it in a Harlem street for two hours, go back and get in her own car, by herself. Her only advance that day was Dorothy Height. And -- but she got back in her car and drove on to Hyde Park. There was no Secret Service. There was no advance. Shows you the difference in the climate.
BOND: Yes, yes, it is. Now, this relationship with Ms. Bethune leads you into the National Council, which surely you knew about before.
HEIGHT: Oh, yes. I'd heard about it, but it had only been organized two years. It was organized in 1935.
BOND: But in some ways it's a result of the early club work.
BOND: I mean, it's a natural --
HEIGHT: Yes. Mrs. Bethune had been the seventh president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, and she said, "We do not need another federation of local clubs. What we need is," and she said, "Negro women, the trained and the untrained alike, stands outside of America's mainstream of opportunity, influence, and power. And what we need is an organization that brings the organizations together." So she founded the National Council of Negro Women as a council of national organizations. We later organized local groups, but those groups are not like a federation. They are chartered by the national body.
BOND: And this vision of bringing together these preexisting organizations, which reached into, I imagine, every community --
HEIGHT: Every community.
BOND: -- in the United States, was there opposition? Anyone against this?
HEIGHT: Oh, yes. And, you know, some people thought that -- well, even some people were ugly enough to say, "Well, Ms. Bethune organized it because she was no longer the president of the colored women's clubs." But as time has gone, here was a woman born in 1875 of slave parents, but she realized that collaboration and cooperation and coalition-building would one day be the only way. She also had that kind of vision. And so she organized it as an organization of organizations, and she also picked up the same theme that we had. Colored women's clubs said, "Lifting as we climb," and Mrs. Bethune said, "We need a unity of purpose for a unity of action, to leave no one behind." So that in a sense, one built on the other.
BOND: Dr. Height, let me take you to the 1963 March on Washington. You helped convince the others to let Martin Luther King speak last, but you weren't able to convince them to have a woman speaker.
HEIGHT: No, no.
BOND: What was the tone of that?
HEIGHT: Well, you know, it was very interesting. Bayard Rustin, of course, was the director for the whole thing. I went myself, I took a group of women. We had several meetings. But the explanation always was, "Well, the NAACP, the Urban League, the churches, the labor unions, all of them have women members." And we said, "Yes. And we don't want a woman to speak for those organizations. We want a woman to speak for women." And they said, "Well, the women are represented."
We weren't able to break through that. There was some reluctance from the Student Nonviolent [Coordinating] Committee. But, you know, John Lewis was young, and they stood up and they spoke. But in the end, we just said, "Well, the purpose of this is too great. We don't want to do anything that would cloud that." And we stood back. So the next day after the meeting, we held a meeting called "After the March, What?" And Pauli Murray and several people wrote a tremendous document on women in the quest for equality. And I think that to think that the only female voice heard that day was that of Mahalia Jackson, who sang the national anthem. And we said, "Well, we're the same people who said that in the broad white community they'll often let us sing, but they won't let us speak. You're doing the same thing." But I think we felt in the end that we did the right thing. But I will tell you, I don't think it would ever happen again.
BOND: Let's talk a bit about Wednesdays in Mississippi. The idea comes from Polly Cowan.
BOND: How did it come about?
HEIGHT: Well, you know, in the summer of '64, Bob Moses set up the Freedom Schools, and when the word got out that he would be having volunteers from all the major Ivy League and other colleges, the word was also out that these were communists going there. And Polly Cowan, whose husband had been in television and the like, was accompanying her husband to England, and she wrote back to me a card on which she said, "Hearing all these mixed messages about the Freedom Schools. I think it would be very good if we had the Cadillac crowd of interracial teams go into Mississippi, on what we could call Wednesdays in Mississippi, and do some service, carry our message, and the like, and see how we could be helpful and support all these young people who'll be down there working."
Well, we developed that idea, and Polly Cowan and I together set up the whole plan. We trained our staff. We had to have an interracial staff. But the idea was that we would have interracial teams of women, all of whom had to have some talent. It was not to be a come-and-see, it was not to be a visit. They were to go in to do something. They had to contribute something in the schools. They also had to commit themselves to preparing on Tuesday, going in on Wednesday. We met separately in our racial groups in the daytime, and then we ate together in the evening as an interracial group, and left on Thursdays. But in the course of all of this, they had to agree that they would go back home and work on civil rights in their own communities.
BOND: So they are engaged not only in Mississippi, but have to pledge to do something --
HEIGHT: Back home.
BOND: -- when they return home. Now, I imagine many of these women probably were already active.
HEIGHT: Many were very active, but it was really not only to be active, but to carry the true story what was happening in Mississippi back to their communities. Because, you know, all during that time it was very hard to get the truth out about what young people were doing, what the whole Freedom Movement was about. And it was a support system to that group of young people in that movement, but also a base for making connections for people to say, "In Minnesota you may not have exactly the same problem, but there is some aspect of civil rights you could be working on. In your particular community, you could be helpful." But you also have to be able to say what young people are doing to try to bring freedom and how they were --
BOND: Now, was it difficult to recruit the white women who went?
HEIGHT: Well, we were very selective. We started with some we knew. And then after a while it was interesting -- women began to call and said they would be interested. In the end, 114 women went down during the summers. They took the risks. I remember some white women said -- I remember one saying, "Well, if my husband knew that I was in this meeting, he would give me a divorce." She said, "But I have to think of my children and my grandchildren." And other women, black women, who when they came together said, "We have never met together before, but we're never going to separate again." So that we were able to make connections and bring women together.
BOND: Now, if it's difficult to recruit the northern white women who went, how difficult was it to recruit the southern Mississippi white women with whom they met?
HEIGHT: Yeah, we were -- we -- that was very hard, but we were very fortunate. We had Ann Hewitt, and Pat [M.] Derian, who later became, in the Carter administration, responsible for human rights. Women -- those -- we called them our anchors, and those women helped us to be in touch with other women. Jane Scott, who was very active in the Church Women's Movement, she drew in others who were there. But it was very interesting how that circle grew and it widened so that you had white women as well as black women, and when they came together, it was an experience that would be even hard to describe. What it meant when those women came together and shared what they had been doing during the day, it created a new sense of determination. And The New York Times called saying that the women had gone behind the "cotton curtain." And it was true, because we did it quietly, there was no publicity. But there was an earnestness.
And I think the thing that Polly Cowan and I felt all the time was that when we sat down to do our debriefing, that so many of those women would say even they had not seen exactly what was happening. The way in which Mississippi law enforcement was treating people -- they had never witnessed that before.
When she and I were traveling and went into Hattiesburg, for example, we were followed by a car. We looked, and as we got into the church, a cocktail, a Molotov cocktail, came through the window, and naturally it fizzled. We were glad it did. But a student from Oberlin ran to the organ and played the "Hallelujah Chorus," and everybody stood and sang it as if we all had been a chorus. You'd have thought we had all been trained together. But there was that sense of relief. So that it was not an easy thing that people were doing. They took risks. But there was a sense that we may not be achieving everything, but we felt that there's a nucleus of people there who went on working.
BOND: It strikes me this is one of those things you can’t measure
BOND: You don’t know what kind of ripple effect it has, and because it was so undercover, there are not many records of remembrances about this
BOND: I know Polly Cowan’s daughter, Holly Shulman, is trying to recreate some of this but it’s a difficult job.
HEIGHT: And I think it’s fairly important because one of the missing elements is the story of women in the civil rights movement. Because people often talk about me working with these great men –Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young and A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King and all – that’s true. That was the leadership strategy kind of group. But behind that, the marches were predominantly women and youth and children. So many of things that the women were doing that had not come to notice. So that’s why I think it is going to be very significant to have this story now lifted up so that people can be able to see it and hear it and know more about what women were doing.
HEIGHT: One of the missing elements is the story of women in the civil rights movement, because even -- you know, people often talk about me working with these great men, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young and A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King and all -- that's true. That was the leadership strategy kind of group. But behind that, the marches were predominantly women and youth and children. And there were women -- so many things that the women were doing that had not come to notice, and that's why I think it's got to be very significant to have this story now lifted up so that people will be able to see it and hear it and know more about what women were doing.
BOND: You know, when you look at the Eyes on the Prize video at the mass meeting crowds, you see immediately that almost everybody in the pulpit is a man --
HEIGHT: That's right.
BOND: -- and almost everybody in the congregation is a woman.
HEIGHT: I often saw that. Maybe -- sometimes I've been to meetings for maybe Mrs. [Coretta Scott] King, Mrs. [Juanita] Abernathy, and I would be on the platform, but the rest of the audience was predominantly women and children.
BOND: Yes. This is --
HEIGHT: But, you know, when you talk about leadership, I think that that's the kind of -- you know -- role that women often take. I remember doing something in Brooklyn once, and a woman at the end of it said -- we'd been talking about volunteer leaders -- she said, "What is a volunteer leader?" Now, this woman was running a little home that she was taking care of children and so on, but she hadn't identified it as such. And I think the important thing is that as we identify so many different ways that people take leadership, I think it's more useful to us. Because otherwise, you think of elections and so on.
BOND: Yes, yes. And you think of heads of organizations --
HEIGHT: That's right.
BOND: -- and today many more women are, but women play a different role than men.
HEIGHT: And I think women also are advancing in public office and the like, but I like to think of leadership is -- one of the ways I like to think of it is, it's the capacity and a willingness to respond to what's needed.
BOND: Was it difficult for you to speak out against the nomination of President [George W.] Bush's nominee, the woman from California -- name escapes me [Janice Rogers Brown]. I remember the statement you made at the --
HEIGHT: It was difficult because I've worked all my life to advance African American women. But, you know, just as I would say you wouldn't just say, "My country right or wrong, it's still your country," I have to say she is still my sister, but she's wrong. And that therefore there would be no way that I could stand up and say she is the person who should be sitting in one of the most influential courts in the United States.
BOND: Let me ask you a question about in your life, the difference between vision, philosophy, and style. How do these interact for you?
HEIGHT: I think vision is a kind of capacity, almost a spiritually-based capacity, to see ahead, to be able to envision something that may be -- that is far-reaching. For example, to envision a world without hunger, but also to have a vision as to how you might achieve that, so that your vision is related to a -- an ultimate goal, something that one -- and it is not something that's just immediately achieved. The other one was --
HEIGHT: I think your philosophy drives your vision. It is -- your philosophy is that which you truly believe. Dr. [Benjamin] Mays used to say, "We often say we believe one thing and do another.” And that is not true. We act -- whatever we act on is what we believe. And I think philosophy is the beliefs that drive one. It is that which one wants, what one feels, what one understands, what one was committed to. I think that's your philosophy.
BOND: And style?
HEIGHT: I think the way you do it is different. People have different styles. And you cannot -- and I think often many people have -- consider a leader one who can, you know, speak loud, and so on and so forth. That's a good style for speech, but not necessarily leadership. And that your style also often reflects your philosophy.
BOND: I see. Now, what about your vision? Have you had a vision that's guided your work in your life, and has it changed over time?
HEIGHT: My vision, the thing to which I have committed my life, is broad. I have had a drive for, you know -- and I think, like they say, the prophets' blood boil at certain things. Mine boils around the issue of social justice. Social justice not just for women, but social justice. And for the -- you know, sort of the recognition of the dignity of every human being. That is -- and I think as I look back, I think that it has been the same, but with different dimensions as I've gone along.
BOND: And what are the dimensions? How did the dimensions enter into this vision, or alter this vision in one way or the other?
HEIGHT: Well, as a child, I didn't know it was social action, but I acted against being denied the chance to swim in a pool. I've reacted against the policies that kept me out of a pool because I was black.
BOND: So the vision became more refined?
HEIGHT: Yes, it became more -- and it got more stimulated in childhood because I witnessed so much of inequality and so much suffering. When I was a student at New York University, I would walk through, during the height of the Depression, men sitting in the yards, in the gardens, with baskets of apples, trying to sell them for a nickel, and every day that just disturbed me. When I went to India and I saw so many people just homeless, and I witnessed a woman having a child lying there suffering, then I realized what the depths of poverty means, and homelessness and so on. So that everyone and everything that I have touched like that has made me work all the harder, made me feel I needed to work that much harder.
BOND: It reinforced the vision.
HEIGHT: Reinforced the vision that this is not -- that we have a world in which there is enough for people to have, there's enough food, there's enough of everything. But somehow or other we have to find ways to make sure that everyone has their opportunity, everyone has a chance to develop, to grow.
BOND: Let me ask you a three-part question about how leaders are made. A, great people make great events; B, leaders come out of movements; or, C, unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the time. Is any of these more true than the others? Are they all true? Where do leaders come from?
HEIGHT: Well, I would think that -- what I said a few minutes ago, people who use their talents themselves, and I think that I stress using selves because I believe, even as you talked about the style of leadership, I think it is the way people give of themselves and use themselves to respond to what's needed in a situation. And I think that such leaders, for me, have an authenticity, that leaders are not just elected or appointed. I think those are in the leadership positions. But I think when you talk about the essence of leadership, someone who's never held an elected position or an appointed one, who sees that a stoplight is needed at the corner, has leadership to save children's lives. I mean, I'm saying that I think it is -- if you look at the essence of leadership, I think we put the label of leader on many people, but I'm talking about leadership is related to one's identifying with something that needs to be done, and responding to it and helping to move it forward.
BOND: Now, think, if you will, about yourself. Are you a leader because your ability to persuade people to follow your vision, or because you're able to articulate an agenda for others to follow? Why are you a leader?
HEIGHT: See, I think that you need all three. I think that you need to be able -- if you have a vision and you can't share it, and if no one shares your vision, who are you leading? So that I think you have to have that capacity and the willingness to try it -- to learn it if you don't have it. You can't just go to the back of the room and say, "Well, I'll let this happen."
But I also think that you -- that a role of leadership is to help people clarify their agenda. I often think of Mahatma Gandhi, who said, "The people -- " When they were trying to restrain him, he said, "The people here want freedom, and I have to follow them because I am their leader." In other words, he saw what the need was, but he also helped to frame that agenda. And I don't think you can hope for something to happen without framing the agenda. You have to effect the agenda, but you help not your agenda, but you have to help your agenda be related to the overall social need.
BOND: Now, have there been times in your life where you felt a challenge to your philosophy, that you felt that your vision --
HEIGHT: All through my life. Yeah, all through my life.
BOND: Can you tell us a time?
HEIGHT: Well, I mean, you know -- I even think sitting in this building, of the times that people said to me -- you know, there were times when I almost gave up, because so many people said, "We don't need something like this." And other people who were antagonistic -- this one white man said to me, "Ms. Height, why do you need to be on Pennsylvania Avenue for the National Congress of Negro Women? You could have a nice office in a side street." Well, then I knew what his vision was of me and of my people, and his view of me and my people. And so you have it from those who are real opponents, and even those who are close in.
I think the most important challenge is always to test it back and say, "Is this something I want? Is this just about me? Or is this really for the good? How much is this related to a social goal and not just so I can be the head of whatever it is and sit on that street?" You see?
HEIGHT: So you have to go back and test it that way.
But I have to say, often those who challenge you are, like President Kennedy told the civil rights team, he said, "Bull Connor will prove to be your best friend because he had to make clear what -- he brought out that which is subtly hidden all around him." Well, I think sometimes those who challenge you are helpful because they make you have to test to what extent is this vision related to something that is real. "Is this thing that I'm trying to do --?" And it also makes you have to say to yourself that "I have to try a new behavior. I have to come another way. I have to see who else is ready to work with this." It makes you -- it, in a sense, it really strengthens leadership if you can survive it.
BOND: You talked a moment ago about this meeting of black women you had at the YWCA. What role has race consciousness played in your work, in your life?
HEIGHT: I grew up, as I said, in a small town, and I was not in -- you know, there was no place to talk about racial pride and all like that. But it has -- but from the moment I left home and I left for high school, and even then, in my high school, I began to get a sense of race pride. My mother gave me, for my elementary school graduation, Carter Woodson's book about the Negro history book, and I read that, and I began to feel, you know, a pride in who I was. But then, you see, it was reinforced in my school, because though we were very few, we graduated for three years straight first, second, and third. So there was no way of having anybody say we were inferior, no matter what -- no matter what we did. So that I had that from those early days.
But I think one of the values that I found at NYU, joining with other students, was that our focus was always on our heritage, on who we are, and I think that that sense of having deep roots that were important and significant was always helpful to me. And then, of course, I have to say, I've been in so many situations where I've been the only Negro, or the only woman, and I learned to always realize -- and people used to say, "You're a token." I realized that it's the token who sometimes, by the way you relate, you act, that you can pave the way for others.
BOND: Do you see your life as having been centered on advancing race issues, advancing larger societal issues, or do you see them as the same?
HEIGHT: I see them as the same, because I think that as I advance the racial issue, I advance the society. I think the society now lags behind, and that as I advance racial issues and women's issues, when I look around the world today and realize how in the last twenty years women have come to a new day, I realize that there is -- and even in our country -- I realize that there is no way to advance the black family without advancing women. There's no way to advance the society -- truly advance -- without dealing with the issues of race. I think race is so dominant in our society, and racism is so deeply rooted, that it's almost inherent that we have to work on the racial issue to bring the society to better level.
BOND: You know, there are many people who would hear you say that and say, "You're living in the past. Race was a big issue in the 1960s. It's not an issue at all now." What do you say to those people?
HEIGHT: I would say to them go back and look at your history, what you now have. You have the legal base, you have policy in a broad sense, but you've only just begun. We have the laws and lack the enforcement. We have the opening, but we lack the economic strength. If you followed it all the way through, that we have not had the totality of what I think we thought we were working for.
BOND: Dr. Height, do you have a different style of leadership when you're dealing with groups that are black or white or mixed?
HEIGHT: I don't have a different style, but I do this -- I try to carry, wherever I am, the same message. But I've learned long ago that I don't have to spell out for most black people what the problems are. I have to spell out the direction we're trying to move and the like. But I find that despite all that we have worked on -- and you have to bear in mind I've spent forty years working in an organization that was interracial, but whose membership was predominantly white -- and I learned that I gain the respect and appreciation and acceptance of my leadership the more I was the same person that I was ever.
I never found that compromising on my goals was profitable, was valuable. I always had the same goal. I might adapt the message so that it could get understood. And when I get mail today of women who read about me in the paper, and they say, "I want you to know how you changed my life. You opened my eye," that -- and those are predominantly white women -- then I realize that you have to be yourself. And you have to --
And people knew that what I was saying -- I remember the time that, in the Boston convention, one of the board members came to me and she said, "You know, we have been doing so well working on race relations, and now you're talking about racism." And she said, "That sounds so terrible," and so forth.
And she said -- and I said, "Well, let me put it to you this way. When we were talking about interracial relations, we were talking so much about building bridges between people of different races. We're now past that." I said, "Racism is so deeply embedded in our history, beginning with slavery, that we now have to ask ourselves, why did we need the bridges? We have to look at the underlying cause. And that is because it has nothing to do with your being prejudiced or my being prejudiced. It's in the system in which we live." And I said, "And therefore, that's why we have to now call it racism, for what it is, and still work on interracial activities. But that should not be a goal -- that's just a process. That's just a step. And every time someone says to you, ‘We're building the bridges,' we want to make sure we know why they are necessary."
And I just use that as an illustration, because I think it's the same message, but I wouldn't have to tell -- well, I might have to tell some black women that -- but I'm just saying that was the difference. Because it was painful to think now we were saying to people the society is racist, and everyone, they began to say, "Well, I'm not." And I have to say back to them, "You don't have to be. It operates whether you know it or not. The banking system, the housing system, the employment system, everything around you, it operates. If affects me as it affects you. It affects you as it affects me. The difference is, you are in a different power position from I, because you belong to the majority group." So I think that I would say the message has to be the same.
BOND: Now, does today's society, so different from the world in which I grew up, you grew up, does it demand a different leader today? Do we need a different kind of leader today?
HEIGHT: I think you need a leader who is able to utilize all the different new media and things that are available. I think it requires an adaptation, but I don't think we will make it unless we have people who are well grounded, who have some vision of what the society could be and some real commitment to justice and to equality.
BOND: Is there some way that we, that American society, can nurture and create the leaders that we need?
HEIGHT: I think we have to. And I think we have to begin with our young people. I think we have to offer more opportunity for young people to be exposed to things that will challenge them and that will draw upon the wellspring of values that we know will be intrinsic and important for their development. I think we have no alternative. In my book I say, "I leave this for the -- I write it for the future generations, because I think they will need it."
BOND: What was that great saying that Ms. [Mary McLeod] Bethune used to say, "I leave you -- " How does that go?
HEIGHT: In her last will and testament, she said, "I leave you love. I leave you faith. I leave you hope. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you the responsibility to our young people." And I always am interested that she didn't say our responsibility for our young people. She said to our young people. And I always feel that our responsibly is to our young people, to help them understand not only who they are and what the struggle has been, but how they are, as she put it, they are the future. But their future doesn't begin later. Their future begins now. And I always like to say to young people, "You're not the leaders for tomorrow. You are leaders today, for today. You are youth leaders for today. And what you do as youth leaders will help prepare you to be leaders later in your life."
BOND: Dorothy Height, thank you so much for this.
HEIGHT: Thank you.