By Deardra Shuler
Dorothy Height sat in a front row seat the night Tony Award winning director George Faison featured If This Hat Could Talk: The Untold Stories of Dorothy Height at the Apollo Theatre. The musical, based upon her best selling memoirs Open Wide The Freedom Gates, depicts the story of Ms. Heights life and Civil Rights career. The heartwarming play gives an historical accounting and portrayal of the civil rights era and salutes the brave men and women who supported it. Some who even lost their lives defending it in an effort to obtain freedom for all Americans.
The play stars Broadway veteran and six time Audelco Award winner, Ebony Jo-Ann as Mary McLeod Bethune and recording artist Margaret Bell as Dorothy Height. Julia Garrison portrays young Height.
Dorothy Height, the President Emeriti, of the National Negro Women Council, oftentimes was the only visible woman and female spokesperson within the male dominated Civil Rights Movement. She represented a vast number of unseen women who played a large role behind the scenes during the Civil Rights era. Women such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fannie Lou Hamer, Myrlie Evans, Coretta Scott King, Josephine Baker, Rosa Parks and Lena Horne. Though the aforementioned women acquired fame there were many non famous heroines who fought in the civil rights trenches just as bravely as men. Among the men of prominence that made up the leadership group within the Civil Rights Movement were Dr. Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., John Lewis, et al. At times, according to the play, a few of these men occasionally held onto some rather misogynistic view points.
Currently 93 years old, the winner of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Freedom Medal, Citizens Medal Award, Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, Dorothy Height has fought for racial equality for over 7 decades. Even as a young girl, Height was fated to be amongst the movers and shakers of the world. While working at the YWCA, Height rose rapidly through the ranks where she held several leadership positions. She also encouraged other women to take on leadership roles via leadership training and developing programs that provided equal opportunities for women of all races and cultures. Thus, it is no wonder at age 25, when as part of the Harlem YWCA, Height was asked to escort Eleanor Roosevelt into the National Council of Negro Womens meeting conducted by Mary McLeod Bethune, (the founder of the National Council of Negro Women) Height answered the call when Bethune invited her to join the Council. Ms. Bethune put Dorothy on the resolutions committee and the women became life long friends and equal rights crusaders.
Dorothy Height has met many influential people in her life, people who share and shared a sense of commonality and purpose with her. One such person was Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she met when he was 15 years of age. King who was gifted man was already a student at Morehouse College. Little did King know where his path would lead, when at that time, he pondered whether to become a doctor or lawyer. Gifted herself, Dorothy was part of ten young people invited to help plan a world peace agenda on behalf of the World Conference of Youth slated to be held at Vassar College oversaw by Eleanor Roosevelt. Her involvement in this endeavor enabled Dorothy to work with Mrs. Roosevelt who took an interest in Dorothy and followed her career as a helpmate and friend throughout her life.
When asked if her life was fated, Ms. Height stated Well, from my early childhood, I seemed to be doing something. From my teenage days, I had a feeling there was something for me to do.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1912, the fearless Dorothy was educated in Rankin, Pennsylvania public schools.
Dorothy Height will go down in the annals of history as one of the great women of our time. Her voice represented, and continues to represent, female courage across the nation. The play, "If This Hat Could Talk," clearly denotes her determination, fortitude, and great contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. It is a remarkable play and should be seen by all as a reminder of our history and struggles for equality.
Heights gift for oration proved instrumental during the harrowing years of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, when she brought women together convincing them to fight for the cause. She often held secret meetings in the homes of brave Southern women to discuss Civil Rights agenda and democratic reform. This became known as Wednesdays in Mississippi when both Southern and Northern Black women commingled with Southern and Northern white women for the cause of freedom. A feminist, Dorothy was sorely disappointed when during the March on Washington womens rights were not addressed. Instead the male leaders concentrated on racism and racial issues while womens concerns took a backseat. Therefore, despite all of Heights efforts she was unable to provide a podium for a female speaker at the March on Washington. This proved a great disappointment to many female supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. We worked through that however and we supported the march, as everyone had to do, because it was a tremendous moment in American life claimed Dorothy when asked about that occasion.
A living legend, Dorothy continues her ongoing fight for equality and justice to this day. She once remarked: I am disappointed that in so many ways we have the laws but we don't have the enforcement. Many who went to jail singing, "we shall overcome"-- did not have the economic position to take advantage of things. We advanced in so many ways but at the same time the poorest seem to be poorer. And the poverty among us seems to be entrenched. However, I am always an optimist because I have an abiding faith. I believe that somehow the right will prevail. We have to keep working. Justice is not impossible. We can achieve it.
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