As a reporter who has had the pleasure of talking to Dr. Dorothy Height over the years, I am struck by the staying power of her words. Covering national figures for BET News can, after a while, threaten to give a reporter the sense that “I’ve heard it all before.” Not so, when talking to Dr. Height. She was different. When she spoke, I listened, not for a soundbite or a pithy catch phrase to sprinkle throughout a story to give it spice, but for the insight, guidance and wisdom she brought with her every time she agreed to sit down with me. When we spoke, I wasn't a reporter, I was a student and she was the professor. One time in particular, Dr. Height left me with knowledge that has stayed with me ever since.
As usual, our news crew would arrive at her D.C. office, nestled between the shadows of the Capitol and the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. No matter how hurried or frazzled we were, Dr. Height was always the picture of calm. She possessed a sense of “knowing” that made you forget your impending deadline.
My assignment was to speak to people at the center of the 1960s Civil Rights movement about ways to engage young people to become more socially conscience and take their rightful place at the forefront of a modern-day movement. I told Dr. Height that people complain that their voices are not being heard and that they can’t take the lead in a new movement because the old guard has not released the reigns. She took everything I said in as I crafted my final question. “Young activists say they are being shut out,” I said. “They feel they are not being allowed to take leadership on issues that impact their lives directly.” She paused for a second and delivered a message that both shocked me and moved me at the same time. “When we were coming along, we never waited for permission," she said. "We permitted ourselves. The stakes were too high and time was too short.” In an instant, I was dumbfounded. She, in a few carefully chosen words, told me everything I needed to tell our young audience. In short, the message was like the old Nike commercial, "Just do it."
Suddenly the iconic picture of Dr. Height as the only woman on stage as Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech takes on a whole new meaning. I wonder if perhaps she was not simply INVITED to participate like her male counterparts. Maybe she simply TOOK her rightful place among them.
Dr. Height taught me that beneath her stately, almost regal exterior, lied a fierce warrior. Everything that we know about her amazing accomplishments and storied past came as a result of countless years, toiling and fighting in the heat of a long battle. Where is the fighter instinct in us today? I walked away wondering if my generation had become too polite and too passive for our own good. Instead of waiting for the mantle, why don’t we, respectfully, take it? We stroll easily down the road, pioneers like Dr. Height blazed many years ago. The road is so easy for us, because it was so hard for them.
So whenever I'm in a situation when I feel there's no place for me at the table I ask, "What would Dr. Height do?" And I politely, take my seat.