NASW honored the remarkable life and ongoing legacy left by Dr. Dorothy I. Height, who died April 20 at age 98.
“I think we have lost a giant leader,” said NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark. “She was a remarkable woman who worked for not only civil rights, but also women’s rights in general.”
Height was most widely known as the longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women and the godmother of the civil rights movement, and for helping to integrate the YWCA.
She was also a proud social worker and NASW Foundation Social Work Pioneerw. She was honored recently with the association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Social Work.
In an effort to continue her legacy of equality and human rights, the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Social Work Reinvestment Act (H.R. 795, S. 686) was reintroduced in the 111th Congress. It proposes that the Secretary of Health and Human Services create a Social Work Reinvestment Commission to address policy issues associated with recruitment, retention, research and reinvestment in the social work profession.
Height’s support of the bill was in step with her busy schedule in Washington. She never slowed down — even as her age approached the century mark. At the time of her death, she was the board chairwoman of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women.
She visited the White House 21 times in recent months and was joined by Clark for several White House ceremonies that promoted social work advocacy.
President Barack Obama delivered a passionate eulogy at Height’s funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral. He was joined by first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The president said he came to know the civil rights icon in the early days of his presidential campaign. She “took part in our discussions around health care reform in her final months,” he said, noting she was hard to miss, thanks in part to Height’s affinity for colorful hats.
Height was raised in a different age, beyond the experience of many today, the president explained.
“Jim Crow ruled the South,” he said. “The Klan was on the rise — a powerful political force. Lynching was all too often the penalty for the offense of black skin. Slaves had been freed within living memory, but too often, their children, their grandchildren remained captive, because they were denied justice and denied equality, denied opportunity, denied a chance to pursue their dreams.”
The president noted that it took leaders like Height to clear a road to racial and gender equality. “Progress came from the collective effort of multiple generations of Americans. From preachers and lawyers, and thinkers and doers, men and women like Dr. Height, who took it upon themselves — often at great risk — to change this country for the better,” he said.
“We remember her for all she did over a lifetime, behind the scenes, to broaden the movement’s reach,” Obama said. “To shine a light on stable families and tight-knit communities. To make us see the drive for civil rights and women’s rights not as a separate struggle, but as part of a larger movement to secure the rights of all humanity, regardless of gender, regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity.”
The president closed his eulogy with a request: Honor Height’s life “by changing this country for the better as long as we are blessed to live. May God bless Dr. Dorothy Height and the union that she made more perfect.”
Gail Woods Waller, director of communications at NASW, represented the association at Height’s funeral service. She said she had the opportunity to meet with Height multiple times over the last several years as an employee of the association. She noted that on a recent group meeting with Height, Woods Waller learned that compromise and collaboration can move mountains.
“Her core message to us was that being of service to a greater purpose will always keep you focused and grounded. Doing that allows you to achieve great things,” she said.
“I have known about Dr. Height since my teens, which led me to seek membership in her beloved sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, at the University of Michigan,” Woods Waller added. “Sisterhood, scholarship and service are the three pillars of the Delta mission and Dr. Height completely embodies all three principles. The legacies of Dr. Height, Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm and countless other African-American women achievers — who are Deltas — remind me why my contributions to the nonprofit world continue to matter.”
She noted that Height fought directly against oppression and discrimination for women and people of color while being a positive and visionary national leader for more than 50 years.
“Dr. Height will be greatly missed, but she lives on in the many lives she has touched over the decades and her challenge to us all is to ‘keep moving forward,’” Woods Waller said.
Dawn Hobdy, manager of NASW’s Office of Ethics and Professional Review, also had the opportunity to meet with Height on a professional level. She and Woods Waller participated recently in a Height documentary being coordinated by Frances Brisbane, dean of SUNY Stony Brook’s School of Social Welfare and also a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
“Having the opportunity to spend time listening to Dr. Height tell her stories with a clarity as if it happened yesterday was something I will never forget,” Hobdy said. “She was patient and kind in the giving of her time and wisdom. She told a table full of future female leaders to listen to each other and to compromise in order to make positive change.”
Hobdy noted she also is a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. “The one woman among all of the incredible women who are part of Delta’s incredible history, Dr. Height always stood out to me,” she said. “There was a light about her that I noticed even before I really knew all the great things she accomplished. I’m grateful to have met, talked to and learned from her.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who is also a social worker, released a statement honoring Height’s legacy upon news of her death.
“Dr. Height was an instrumental voice in making this country a better place for people of every race, faith and gender,” Mikulski said. “From school desegregation to fair pay for women, Dr. Height was there, breaking down barriers to equality.”
The senator said Height’s death is a great loss to the country, “but each day her legacy lives on — in civil rights, women’s rights and addressing the social problems that face our nation.”
As a sister social worker, Mikulski said, Height believed that real change must come from the local community.
“I was proud to recognize her life’s work by introducing the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act, to expand the number of social workers to combat the social problems facing our nation.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a statement honoring Height as well.
“Dr. Height was a relentless and persuasive advocate for what she called ‘prying open the gates of freedom.’” Sebelius said. “Through her words and actions, and, perhaps most importantly, through her example, she helped bring us closer to the day when the basic building blocks of opportunity — a strong education, good health care and voice in the political process — are available to every American.”
Sebelius said she was personally inspired by Height, particularly for her advocacy on behalf of American women and girls.
“That’s why I was so grateful that she lived to see the passage of a health reform bill that ended health insurance discrimination against women and struck a historic blow against health disparities, which Dr. Height’s collaborator, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once called the most ‘shocking and inhumane form of injustice,’” Sebelius said. “Dr. Height was a one-of-a-kind American heroine and we will miss her greatly.”
Clark said she was honored to give Height a social work tribute when the civil rights leader was inducted into the Democracy Hall of Fame in 2004. Height also received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian and most distinguished award presented by Congress.
“I had the wonderful privilege of meeting with Dr. Height several times over the past decade,” Clark said. “Each time I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Just being with her made me feel that I could do more, should do more. She had that effect on people.
“Dr. Height wasn’t simply a part of history; she created history,” she continued. “She spent her career and her life working to make this world a better place. Her focus included civil rights, women’s rights and human rights. Her counsel was sought by individuals, organizations, communities and presidents.”
Clark noted that Height’s funeral service ended with the gospel song, “This Little Light of Mine (I’m Gonna Let it Shine).”
“May the light of Dorothy. I. Height live on,” Clark said, “and may her beacon reach every one of us and reinforce our purpose and our profession so that we can honor and further the legacy she left us.”