January 24, 2003: Dorothy Height Oral History Interview by Holly Shulman

HS: Thinking about the future, what lessons do you think that someone learning about Wednesdays in Mississippi-what lesson do you think we can learn from that, that we can carry into the future?
DH: I think they should learn from it something of what the struggle has been. I think there’s too much thinking that it was all about an “I have a dream” speech, but they need to look at it and see what prices people paid. They could also learn the value of people of good will, not saying, “Well, this is such a big problem, I can’t tackle it,” but seeing what could they do. It sounds like a little thing, but it makes a difference.
HS: Do you think that there are lessons from Wednesdays in Mississippi that we could carry in the future to solve other sorts of conflicts that arise over barriers, whether they’re race or religion or-
DH: I think it does give us a way of seeing that if you bring people together-well, it has to have a task and a focus. They just can’t come together. They have to have something to do. But you always have something to work on.

I think it also, for today’s youth, should help them realize how in so many simple ways racism and sexism are built into the systems under which we live. You can talk diversity all you want, but if you don’t go beneath the surface, you have nothing. I think what was strengthening in Wednesdays was the human factor, the people who were frightened many times, were also-their eyes were opened, and they were saying, “Well, there must be something we can do.”

I think that too many young people today take it for granted the doors that are opened, they don’t know how they got opened, and they don’t want to talk about racism and sexism and these things. They don’t want to talk about that because they think, you know, that it’s all over.

And I think that my greatest fear is that now that the “colored” and “white” signs are down, now that the laws are gone, now that they’re questioning affirmative action, and now all of these things are happening, that we will still have the institutionalized racism and sexism, but we will not have the clear targets to work at, that it is now much more subtle, that it is going to be harder to deal with, and people are going to need the same kind of “Get up out your bed and go down south” that we had in Wednesdays in Mississippi. Those women could have rested peacefully, but they went down there. They put themselves into the picture. And I think more and more young people are going to have to learn to look at it that way, and to look beneath the surface. You know, to look at why is it we’re so worried about the judges, why is it we’re so worried now about the court. And partly it is because there is no evidence that they are looking at this country as it is.

HS: Imagine you’re talking to a fourteen-year-old girl and she’s black. What would you say to her?
DH: I would say to her that a lot of people gave their lives to eliminate overt racism, the signs, the laws, and the rest; that she, number one, should vote, because so many people died for the vote, but she should vote in order to open up the society more and not be just worried about herself.
HS: And to a fourteen-year-old white girl.
DH: I would say that. I would say, also, that you have to be concerned not only about yourself, but about those who are the victims of discrimination and poverty and homelessness. You have to look at this. You have to be an advocate for equality and justice. You have to be willing to speak up at points where it’s not popular, and if you don’t speak up, you can at least act in a fashion that helps.

And I would say to a white girl today that you may not be personally responsible, but you have to understand that you inherited a position of privilege, even if you’re poor, over those who were formerly enslaved.

HS: If we’re looking towards the future, and we’re thinking about the kind of social action that makes for a better world, what role do you feel religion can possibly play in that world?
DH: My experience is that the basic change, civil rights movement, was predominately led by ministers, churches, people of faith. You had the Women’s Christian Association, never would have achieved what it did, had it not had a Christian purpose. Now that people have reorganized it and done something, I don’t know what it will come to.

I think that the teachings of all of the great religions speak to, you know, the oneness of human beings, of the human race, and so on, and I think that those who are driven by faith don’t back down when they see difficulties, because their goal is higher than just this one little item. They want to sit at the counter, but also, more than that, they want to respect human dignity. Even Rosa Parks said that she could hear a little voice saying to her, “You’re a child of God. You can make a difference,” when she refused. I think religion-I would say faith that is exercised plays a great portion. I think that’s going to true in the future as well as in the past.

I think the people who are simply pragmatic and want us to do whatever they think is going to get the most popularity or something, I don’t think that they’re on solid enough ground. I think that’s why when Dr. King says laws that square with the moral law of the universe are those that move us forward, I think that there’s a way in which people truly rooted in faith have a different view of themselves, of other people, and the world, and they work differently. Otherwise, at the first failure, you would say, “Well, let’s give this up.” You know, when they say, “Keep the faith,” it’s more than a slogan. If you keep the faith, you see beyond the here and now. You don’t take every hurt as saying, “Well, that’s the end. We’ll give that up.” You don’t see every failure as the end. You may not see the progress, but you always have hope that there will be progress. You can’t always measure what you have achieved, but you also have to measure what you did with the hope that it would bring some change.

And you have to have some sense of being identified with the whole of humanity and not just your little piece, and I think that all of the great religions direct you in that direction. It’s not a matter about the ritual, and it’s not imagined upon any form, but it is the role that faith plays in human growth and development. It’s the role faith plays in vision, so that you don’t limit yourself by what you can immediately see or what you can readily accomplish. If you set goals that are big enough, then you have to rise to try to meet the goal, but you won’t do any of that without faith. That’s why I think it’s central to whatever we do.