Dorothy Height’s Legacy: Stand Together

Winnie Stachelberg reflects on the life of civil rights leader Dorothy Height and what lessons she can offer those fighting for equality today.

Dr. Dorothy Height gives remarks during memorial services for Rosa Parks in Washington in 2005. Dr. Height helped bridge the gap between the African-American civil rights groups and the women's movement. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Dr. Dorothy Height gives remarks during memorial services for Rosa Parks in Washington in 2005. Dr. Height helped bridge the gap between the African-American civil rights groups and the women's movement. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Funeral services are being held today for Dr. Dorothy Height, a civil rights leader, women’s equality advocate, and all-around amazing human being. I will always remember waiting anxiously with her in the ornate Senate anteroom in 1996 as the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act both came for a vote. Dr. Height was always there at moments like these, and it mattered.

We lost both votes that day, which foreclosed federal recognition of gay and lesbian families across the country and left gay and transgender Americans vulnerable to being fired in most states across the country—problems that remain to this day. This was not the first time that our community’s friend Dorothy had seen disappointment. After 60 years of civil rights activism, she had seen incremental improvements, major setbacks, and long stretches without any progress whatsoever.

She knew, however, that the way forward was to stand and advocate together. Even when African-American civil rights groups and women’s groups were wary of each other’s goals Dr. Height found a way to bridge both those worlds with grace, dignity, and undeniably stunning results. Her “Wednesdays in Mississippi” project in the 1960s brought women together across the color and regional lines that continue to divide Americans.

The year after losing those votes I experienced one of the highlights of my career, if not my life, when I presented Dr. Height with the Human Rights Campaign’s National Civil Rights Award at the dinner where Bill Clinton became the first sitting president to speak to an audience of gay and transgender Americans.

At the time, a big part of the gay community lauded that night as a huge step forward while another part railed against the organization and the evening saying it was an elitist and hollow event. Meanwhile, much of the country briefly registered the whole thing as it was noted on the national news, considered it for a moment, and then went on again about their daily business.

As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the past year and a half we have seen President Barack Obama and Congress do more to advance LGBT equality than any other leaders in American history. Last year, after nearly 13 years of work, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act into law, including sexual orientation and gender identity in national civil rights laws for the first time. He also ordered benefits for the families of gay federal employees, completed the abolition of the HIV immigration ban, and the week before last issued the directive allowing hospital visitation rights for same-sex partners.

Still, many within our own community criticize Democratic leadership and our advocacy groups in Washington, claiming that nothing has been done for our community.

True, these incremental changes are not enough, and they do not get us to the full equality that other Americans take for granted. But I have to ask those who are busy demonizing portions of our own community what they thought the road to equality would look like. Progress continues to be made one step at a time, and I believe there’s much more to come.

At this moment, we are closer than we have ever been to lifting the ban on gay and lesbian service members in the American armed forces. Our community has worked for 17 years to get to this place, and we will likely see Congress act on repeal before Memorial Day. We have gotten this close because key leaders in Congress, the administration, and the community are working together.

Which brings me to this point: The clear and present danger that most threatens our progress on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the potential for infighting among our own community. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder right now as we advocate for our cause in a very crowded progressive playing field that must also address Wall Street reform, climate change, and immigration before the end of this Congress. We cannot afford to fumble the ball and miss this opportunity because we are busy squabbling over tactics instead of speaking to our leaders and their constituents.

As Hillary Clinton—another staunch ally of the community who knows something about building tough coalitions—has said, “you can’t roll up your sleeves when you’re pointing a finger.”

Dorothy Height stood for women’s rights at a time when the male leadership of the civil rights movement wasn’t ready to join that fight. She engaged women of all races in the struggle for equality for African Americans even as some women’s groups continued to discriminate. Today, as we honor and remember her life, I hope that our community can learn from Dr. Height’s memory, stand together, and push “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” repeal over the goal line.

Winnie Stachelberg is the Senior Vice President for External Affairs at American Progress.

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Winnie Stachelberg

Former Executive Vice President, External Affairs