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Alexis Herman Remembers Civil Rights Titan Dorothy Height


And now, we want to take a moment to remember the legendary civil rights leader Dorothy Height. She died this morning at the age of 98. The only woman among the leaders of the big six civil rights organizations, Height worked for human rights and civil rights here at home and abroad since she was a young social worker.

She worked alongside leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., but she had a particular interest in helping women find their voices in leadership. For decades she served variously on the staff of the Young Women's Christian Association, as the national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and as president of the National Council of Negro Women.

She still went to the office nearly every day until she went to the hospital on March 25th with an unspecified ailment. We wanted to talk more about this woman, so we've called Alexis Herman. She served as the secretary of labor under President Clinton and was one of many people whose lives were touched by Dorothy Height. Alexis Herman, thank you so much for joining us. Our condolences.

Ms. ALEXIS HERMAN (Former Secretary of Labor, Clinton Administration): Oh, thank you so much, Michel. And she would've been so proud of your distinguished career. So it's a pleasure for me to be here with you today in her memory.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. What do you think she was good at? What is it that you think made her so special?

Ms. HERMAN: You know, what made Dorothy Height so special was her steadiness, her visionary leadership. She was always about the future. And she really believed in service. For her, her life was about service and giving back. And she always said it wasn't about the many years of her life, but what she did with it.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think people note about her is that she always had a very clear voice on the relationship between women's rights and civil rights. I just want to play a short clip from a conversation that we had with her last year, I think right after election day. Here it is.

Ms. DOROTHY HEIGHT (Civil Rights Leader): All of it was towards saying, how can we bring all the people who need to understand the role that women have played, but also the predicament women face, and especially we who are women of color, where we have both sex and racial discrimination as a characteristic for our lives.

MARTIN: Was that a hard argument for her to make? Did she find a receptive ear for this? As I mentioned - and she was very often the only woman at the table in some of these, sort of the major discussions around civil rights, or certainly the only woman who had a prominent voice.

Ms. HERMAN: It was not a hard argument for her to make. I think it was sometimes a hard lesson for others to hear. But she never wavered in her commitment or her beliefs. And that was the reason why I think at the end of the day so many people did end up listening to what she had to say, because she was always the voice of reason. She was always the voice of clarity. And so for her it was never hard. She did what she had to do virtually all of her life.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think many people may not remember, because so much of this work went on behind closed doors, is just how courageous she was in forging interracial coalitions. I think many people forget today that bringing women of color together with white women in some of these groups was actually an act of physical courage. And I wondered if you could tell us, what skill did she bring to that? Why do you think she was so effective in coalition building?

Ms. HERMAN: I think she was so effective in coalition building - first of all, she always had an ear for others. She was always willing to listen to the perspectives of others and to find a win in every situation. And she could always carve out a way that others could work together. And so while others heard differences, she really listened for those places in ways that you could come together. She had a unique ability to do that.

And I have been with her in so many meetings, so many settings where people would be arguing and they weren't listening and hearing one another. And all of a sudden she would come up with the one statement, the one idea, the one issue around which you could forge that coalition. So she could always find that middle ground, that common ground.

MARTIN: And one of the things I think is also interesting for people who may not have known her is that I think in her later years she was known as this elegant senior diva in her fabulous hat and so forth. But she was a really strong advocate for young people. She was always urging young people to find their voice. I just want to play another short clip very quickly. Here it is.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Ms. HEIGHT: I like to say to young people today, you are the beneficiaries of what a lot of people worked and gave their lives for. And you are enjoying things, no matter how bad it may seem, you're still better off than many of those who worked to bring us to this point. And the important thing now is not to go it alone on your own by yourself, but see how you will join with others, get organized in how you will serve others and how you will help to move this forward.

MARTIN: Alexis Herman, how will you remember her?

Ms. HERMAN: I will remember her as someone that I was blessed to have in my life for nearly 40 years. And for me she was my first lady of service. She taught me what it really meant to give back and to make a difference.

MARTIN: Alexis Herman is the former secretary of Labor. She was kind enough to join us on the phone on this sad day as we remember Dorothy Height. Alexis Herman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. HERMAN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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