My mother, Polly Spiegel Cowan, civil rights activist, died in 1976. As I watched the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama I held in my heart the image of my mother and her dear friend and colleague Dr. Dorothy Height.
Cheers to you, Mom, watching from wherever you are now. And cheers to you, Dr. Height. I'm glad you got a great seat at the inauguration. You more than deserve it.
From the NY Times, Sept 17, 2009
One of Mr. Obama’s guests, Dorothy Height, 96, will have a place of honor on the platform — in her wheelchair. Ms. Height, a longtime social activist, was accepted at Barnard College in 1929 but was turned away when she arrived because the school had met its quota of two black women.
“I never thought I would live to see this,” she said of the inauguration of a black president. “This is real recognition that civil rights was not just what Dr. King dreamed. But it took a lot of people a lot of work to make this happen, and they feel part of it.”
From NewsChanne8 in Washington, DC, January 19, 2009
At 96 years old, Height has seen many firsts, but when Barack Obama is sworn-in as the nation's first African-American president, it will be an experience for her unlike any other. "I'll be glad I lived long enough to see it and I think it's the answer to so many prayers- something that people have worked on for a long time."
Born in Richmond, Height first started working in New York City. By the late 1930's, she had established herself as a civil rights activist and joined the National Council of Negro Women.
American leaders regularly met with her. Height encouraged President Eisenhower to desegregate schools and President Lyndon Johnson to appoint African-American women to positions in government. "She has been the glue that has held our civil rights and human rights movement together for the last 40 years and one of the things I'm so happy about is that she lived to see the day," said Rev. Walter Fauntroy, civil rights activist.
In 1957, Height was named president of the National Council of Negro Women. It was a position she held throughout the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960's. It was a time when the idea of an African-American becoming president seemed impossible. "You know, I had thoughts that often were disturbing, but you can't work at something if you don't believe in it. And I believed that someday this would happen," said Height.
Now that it is happening, the National Council of Negro Women is gearing up for a huge celebration on Inauguration Day. Height will be at the swearing in and then as the parade comes down Pennsylvania Avenue, there will be a celebration at their headquarters along the route.
"We are the only African-Americans who own a building within this quarter of Pennsylvania Avenue and for the first time we'll be ushering in an African-American president," said Christine Toney, National Council of Negro Women
But while the crowds along Pennsylvania Avenue celebrate a new president, Height will also use the day to reflect. It's been a long road to get here and she knows there is still work to be done. "I think that many opportunities have opened up. The country's come along way and I would say to young people to keep up the spirit that we have now and keep your eyes open and your heart open and see how you can take us to the next step," said Height.
So at 96 years old, Height marks another first on Tuesday - one that's stirring up feelings like none other. "It's not just a feeling of joy. It's a feeling of achievement and a feeling of greater confidence in a society in which we live. I think the possibilities of America are unlimited."
Links to Wednesdays In Mississippi, the Civil Rights organization founded by my mother and Dr. Dorothy I. Height.