Two days before our live television program called “About Our Children,” my office received a phone call from an assistant to Dr. Dorothy Height. It was a busy time: every ticket for the event at Howard University had been distributed and we were finalizing the event that would focus on education, poverty, and the future of America’s children. Dr. Dorothy Height wanted a ticket and I instantly said, “Of course.” This was the woman who had once said, “We’ve got to work to save our children and do it with full respect for the fact that if we do not, no one else is going to do it.” Having her at our event was one of the greatest honors of my life not only because she wanted to be there, but because her presence was an indication of the importance of what we were doing.
Dr. Height’s passing should give all Americans, especially African Americans, pause. Death is always sad, but at age 98, Dr. Height led a very full life. More than mourning, her passing should encourage reflection: are we caring on her legacy, are we living up to her ideals, are we reaching the goals she set and fought so hard for?
Dorothy Height spent a life fighting for equality and opportunity. She faced long odds: born before women were granted the right to vote and when blacks faced segregation and legal discrimination. Yet she persevered. She earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s. She spoke out against injustice when she was just a teenager. After earning her degrees at New York University, she became active in the Harlem YWCA and the United Christian Youth Movement, where she fought against segregation and lynching. By 1938, she was already recognized as an important leader, and spent time with Eleanor Roosevelt as the first lady prepared for a World Youth Conference.
She became the foremost woman leader of the civil rights movement, working side-by-side with Dr. Martin Luther King and others to change the world. She not only had to work with other civil rights leaders to fight the oppression that blacks faced, but she also had to push back against sex discrimination within the movement, which too often marginalized women.
Dorothy Height was proud of the progress made during the civil rights movement, but she recognized that much work was left to be done. For forty years, she led the National Council of Negro Women, fighting for additional reforms. She remained active until the very end.
What can we learn from a woman like this? All Americans, but especially African-Americans, should be proud that this woman was able to overcome so much and change the world for the better. She showed us every day of her life what is possible. Within the black community, we should also be challenged. Each of us should ask ourselves, what are you doing to improve our lives and the future of our children and community?
For some, it is easy to be satisfied with the progress that has been made. A growing African-American middle- and upper-class has more opportunity that ever before. We have a black President and regularly see African-Americans in prominent positions from Secretary of State to CEO.
For others, it is easy to see current problems as intractable, almost impossible to overcome. Black unemployment is well above the national average, and in some states is over 20 percent. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that, based on current trends, nearly one third of black males born in 2001 can expect to spend some time in prison.
How can this be? And what can we do to eradicate the ills that continue to plague black America and live up to the ideals and heritage of Dorothy Height and the civil rights movement?
As a community, we should urge the black community to begin by refocusing on education. Certainly, Dr. Height recognized that education was the foundation of progress. Without education, there can be no meaningful progress. And today, our education fails too many of our children. One in four eighth grade students scored “below basic” in reading on a national test, which means that they don’t have a literal understanding of what they read. That figure is for all children. It’s much worse for African-Americans, with more than 40 percent of 8th graders scoring below basic, which means they effectively can’t read. How are these children going to go on to high school and obtain they skills they need to graduate, get a job, and become active, successful members of the community?
We know too well what happens when our education system fails our children. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a high school graduate earns about 29 percent more than a high school drop- out. A full-time worker with a bachelor’s degree earns twice what the average drop out makes, which adds about to about a million more in earnings over the course of a lifetime. And money is only a small part of the equation. Drop outs are more likely to experience myriad other problems: from substance abuse and involvement in crime to homelessness and poverty.
We need to fix our education system now. Not just parents, but the entire community needs to start paying attention to our education system and pushing for meaningful reform. It’s not about funding: it’s about demanding excellence from ourselves, our teachers and our students. It’s about giving parents more options about where to send their children to school so that their children aren’t forced into schools that are unsafe and where kids don’t learn.
Yet we shouldn’t wait for the education system to improve. Education has to start at home. The top priority of all parents has to be to give our children what they need. And that doesn’t mean money. Even if you’re poor, you have the tools you need to give your child a leg up on life. You can be your child’s first, best teacher. That starts with getting an education yourself. If you can’t read, learn. There are programs and organizations committed to helping. Then, start reading to your child. Pay attention to what your child eats, drinks, watches on television, and who he or she plays with. Ask questions at your child’s school. Make sure your child does homework. If your public school isn’t a good fit for your child, explore other options. Remain engaged. If your child gets in trouble, that’s no time to let up or give up. You need to stand by him or her and get help so that your child can have a second chance.
It’s not just parents who need to get involved. All of us should think about what we can do and how we can help one another. Keep an eye on your neighborhood. Is there a child in trouble? Someone who could use an adult’s help or guidance? You can be that person. Volunteer.Talk with children. Be the person that you wish you’d had in your life when you were young.
Dr. Height has been, and will continue to be honored with touching tributes. This is how it should be. Her place in history is set in stone and will never be forgotten. Yet a more fitting tribute is for all of us in the black community to recommit to advancing her legacy of bettering ourselves and our communities.As she once said, “No one will do for you what you need to do for yourself. We cannot afford to be separate. … We have to see that all of us are in the same boat.”