Dr. Height was still in her twenties when her leadership abilities and her great humanitarian spirit were recognized by two of America’s most distinguished women of the 20th century, Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The fact of the matter is their faith in Dorothy Height as an advocate for social justice was well-placed. She has been a tireless champion for the poor and for the powerless for more than six decades, especially on behalf of African American women, and certainly her magnificent service has clearly made a difference in all of our lives. Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer – they all considered her to be their friend and their comrade, and she was the only woman who was a part of that great inner sanctum as they planned the strategies, as they championed the strategies that literally changed the nation, as they set forward the battles and the plans for the 1950s and sixties that gave rise to the modern day civil rights struggle in our country.
Being the only woman in that group, my friends, was no easy task for Dorothy Height, but as she has always done, she rose to that occasion. As she continues to do today, she has marched, she has suffered, and she has rejoiced. And I think it is very appropriate that in her new autobiography, we call it Open Wide the Freedom Gates. Because there is no one who has pushed harder to open those gates and to make this world a better place, not just for Americans, but for all of us who call ourselves citizens of Dr. King’s beloved community. It is my high honor this evening to present to her the Choral Arts Society of Washington DC’s Humanitarian Award. This award tonight was graciously donated by the Tiffany Company. And so, I invite to the stage, Dr. Dorothy Height.
Dr. Height – we love you, we salute you, and tonight, we honor you. My friends, Dr. Dorothy Height.
Thank you. It’s always very special for me to be presented or introduced by or even in the presence of Alexis Herman, and I want to thank her for this beautiful introduction. And I’m deeply grateful to the Choral Society of Washington for making me the first recipient of this award. I consider that a very high honor. You know, music is a universal language, and in a sense, when we celebrate Dr. King, music has a very special way, I think, of helping us all. Because it deals with the human condition, but it also lifts us to realize the greatness of the human potential. And therefore, I’m especially pleased to be honored by the Choral Society. I accept this award also with appreciation for the focus tonight on celebrating Dr. King, because I think we often let our history get beyond us. And I think it is wonderful for us that we have a holiday when we will not take time off, but we have time to really look at those who have made our country great.
I’m very fortunate because I met Dr. King when, as you heard earlier this evening, he was just 15 years old. He had come to Morehouse College. I was working for the Young Women’s Christian Association of the United States, and though I had that leadership training team that was in Atlanta, my white colleagues could live in a hotel, but I had to live in a private home. Of course, I protested, but I wasn’t very sad that the home I lived in was that of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays. One evening I was urged to come home on time, and I had the opportunity to meet this young man. Like any 15-year-old, he was thinking of what he wanted to be and how he wanted to do it, and it was hard for me to realize 10 years later that that young man would become my leader, your leader, the leader of a great movement. That he had been one who taught us the importance of looking not just at interpersonal relations, but at power relations, of understanding the system under which we lived, and that we had to work to change the system.
Dr. King was not assassinated because he had a dream, though his speech, ‘I Have a Dream,’ will live forever. He was really assassinated because he dared to try to change the system. And I think we have to keep saying to ourselves that we’ve come a long way. In 1968 after his assassination, there were cities burning across the country, and later there was a commission that made a study and it came back and said to us that at base, the problem was that we had talked so much about the violence in the street as people were marching, but we had overlooked the violence in people’s lives, the poverty, the hunger, the hopelessness, and that somehow or other, at the base of all of this, was the racism that all of us had to deal with. We have come a long way, and I think all of us here are proud of it, but we have a long way to go.
And I cherish the fact that Dr. King taught us how he wanted to be remembered. He said, “I don’t want to be remembered for my Nobel Peace Prize or any of those things, but I want to be remembered as a drum major for justice.” He wanted to be remembered as one who cared about what was happening to people in all levels of life. And I think for us on a beautiful evening like this, to have the opportunity to think on Dr. King for a beat, [for me] to have the opportunity to be honored by you in the name of Dr. King, is a moment once again to renew our determination to make Dr. King’s dream a reality.
And the way he said he wanted us to do it, he said, we needed to realize that we need each other, that we need to work together. He said “The black man needs the white man to free him of his fear, and the white man needs the black man to free him of his guilt.” And as we come together, only then can we develop what he called the beloved community, only then.
I think this award certainly, for me, renews my determination to work and to be with you as we all – in the name and in honor of, in memory of, in recognition of, inspired by and stimulated and urged on by Dr. King – work together to build a society that’s not only based on law and order, but on peace and justice and freedom and dignity for all people. And I thank you from the bottom of my heart.