Height gave the following speech at a symposium on the legacy of the NCNW. The conference marked the opening of the Bethune Museum and Archives for Black Women in Washington, D.C., the first institution devoted exclusively to black women's history.
I came into office at a time when we were struggling very hard as black women in this country, seeking to get hold of our organization and to hold our heads high in the society around us. One of the things that had confronted us was that we were the inheritors of a great organization headed by Mrs. Bethune, and we did not have tax-exempt status. And, I think there are people in this room who remember as I do, how we stood on the floor and said, "If it means we have to give up political action, let's not worry about it." And we struggled on. We could not get any contributions based upon the person's being exempt.
So, one of the first things that we did was to seek a way to give us the chance to expand our program so that the political activity that we can never give up would not –would somehow be in balance with the rest of it. And I think the educational foundation that was established – and Daisy Lampkin served as its chair and Dorothy Ferebee followed her – was a means through which we were able to initiate some kind – new kinds of program activities. And one of the first of these was the Bethune House here in Washington, the first 221-D.C. housing program sponsored by a non-governmental organization.
But it was very shortly thereafter that the country was caught up in something else. It was moving towards what we had said in the NAACP, we would be "free by '63." But little did we know the events that would somehow step up around us. [Previous speaker] Mrs. Mason has referred to Rosa Parks and you know the story of Montgomery. And you know what that did to the whole nation and what it set in motion; the sit-ins, the pray-ins, all the different kind of things that were happening. And in the middle of all of that as the things began to move, the Taconic Foundation, under the leadership of Stephen Currier, wanted to know what could be done to help deal with the problems of the black community, and the black family. And they called together Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, and Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, C. Eric Lincoln – who had written a book on the black Muslims – A. Phillip Randolph, Jack Greenberg – who was with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund – and me. And made us pledge that we would somehow stay together, never send a substitute but come ourselves to each meeting, and that we would dedicate one day every six weeks to thinking together about where we were.
And I remember that each one took an assignment. I took the assignment of organizations because I was interested in organizations. And one of the significant things that I think we often forget is that black people and black women have been as shut out of volunteer opportunities on boards and committees and organizations outside of their own [communities] - they've been just as shut out there as we are out of jobs. And so I began to work with that kind of study. And someone else took housing and away we went. And then suddenly something happened: Medgar Evers was assassinated. And, on the morning after his assassination, Stephen Currier called us all back together again and he said, "We've been thinking of ourselves as a kind of united civil rights leadership." But he said, "What we need to do now is to see how this country can be brought to a realization, that it cannot exist with this kind of thing happening, and what all this signifies."
He sent out telegrams to a hundred people to meet at the Carlisle Hotel the next morning. Ninety-some persons appeared, and he had each of us tell the story of the organization and its driving. Roy Wilkins had to leave for the funeral of Medgar Evers. And, then after that, the rest of us all had a chance to talk. I had to say what it meant to black women that we were a part of the whole civil rights movement, that we were a civil rights organization, really, under the leadership of women. And that we had had a major hand in that whole beginning with the significant male leadership, to point out that we had to add to that great group that started, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, no matter what it was doing or who agreed with its tactics or not. Because as women, we could not see our children and our youth struggling and have them on the outside of our effort.
And after we had each told the stories, Stephen Currier made an appeal. He received pledges of some $800,000 for the civil rights movement. Those organizations that were tax-exempt could reap the full benefits. We were not tax-exempt, but we did have the educational arm, which was the educational foundation. So that as contributions were made, we received $50,000 from that civil rights pot. And I think I have to add there that another piece of money that came to us through the civil rights effort was from Martin Luther King Jr., who when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, came back and he said to all of us around the table, "I have to give every organization its piece." I think we know a lot about Dr. King, but I think that's a little known story of how he shared with each of those organizations.
From that little spark, we were asked also to perform another function, because we did have an educational foundation. We were asked to become the trustees for the funds the NAACP – which was not tax-exempt – gathered for the Evers children. And I'll always remember how Mrs. Lampkin, when the time came, said to us, "It is good that we did this because those were lean days at many points." But we held that money and the interest and it all went to that family and those children, because it was what people who had expressed their concern wanted them to have.
So that in a sense, the civil rights movement and our role in it shaped the task of anyone carrying leadership in the organization. It meant – and I look over here and I see Arnetta Wallace – that on a certain day after the four little girls were murdered in Birmingham, that we descended into Birmingham, 14 heads of national women's organizations, members of the National Council of Negro Women. And we were there, we marched through the bayonets and we felt the tension in the city.
Dr. Ferebee and I were there in Selma long before the Selma march. We went down at the time that Prathia Wynn and James Forman called us and said, "Three hundred children are in jail here and nobody knows where they are. We need some outside voice that will come in and help us to get that story out." And we got there just as the 300 children were released from jail, and some of their pictures looked like the children in Cambodia because they were bare bones; they had been denied food and services. And when we asked them, "What have you been having?" one little boy said, "We've been eating boll weevil gravy." And when I looked at some of the children and I said to them, "You say so many bad things about people here. Don't you think there are some good white people?" And the little boy who had said the most looked up and he said - he looked at Dr. Ferebee and me - and he said, "Well, there must be some." [laughter] But you know, it was a driving thing to think that you live in a country where a child of one race would say, "There must be somebody of the other race who's decent."
And all of that kept pushing us. We went to Atlanta and brought together representatives – young women – who had been the victims of law enforcement officers in the jails. We heard them tell about the vaginal searches by orderlies who dipped their gloves in Lysol. We heard them tell about how they banned together, so that they would not be raped by the officers all around them. And we found ourselves, little by little, pulling together all our forces to say, "What is there we can do?" And I remember the meeting that we had in Atlanta, when we were talking about this, because we brought together white women's groups also, that they might know what was happening, as well.
And I'll never forget; we called it the Women's Inter-organizational Committee, because we didn't know what to call it. We didn't want to say it was a civil rights meeting. And when the meeting was over, one of the women said, "Well, you know, the initials of what we call [ourselves] is WIC. And it if means that if each one of us, no matter whether we are black or white, should go back into her community and be like a wick, lighted, that could be – that little bit of light, that could make a difference. And, out of that, the whole concept of WICS was developed.
And when we were called upon to reach young women in poverty, the very coalition we had put together became the one that Sargent Shriver could call upon to help recruit young women for the Job Corps. And someone said, "What shall we call it?" And I remember Helen Racklin saying, "Well we already have WIC," so we called it Women in Community Service.
In other words, the National Council of Negro Women has been there even when our story has not been told. You may remember that in the summer of 1963, there was a great march on Washington. We were there. We did something that we were asked not to do, but it was too late when we heard they were asking that no one meet after the march on Washington. We held a meeting called "After the March, What?" And out of that meeting, there came a molding of some new spirits and new interests. So that by 1964, when Bob Moses called for the summer in Mississippi, the freedom schools, we had a coalition of women already working together, and those women went down into Mississippi on Wednesdays. Etta Barnett is one of them, who is here tonight.
And we went in interracial teams with an idea that was designed by Polly Cowan, that we would go in to see what was happening to young people in the freedom schools. But that we would always carry our talents and we would always do something that would be significant. So out of Wednesdays in Mississippi, we began to build bridges of understanding between black and white women in the South and black and white women in communities across the country. And one of the significant things that had happened in that Atlanta meeting I mentioned was that we asked the women who were there, because so much was being said about, you know, "Yankees stay home; don't interfere with what's going on in the South." We asked them a question: "Does it help you or does it hinder you to have a national organization come in?" And, the women, Clarice Harvey, speaking for one group of women said, "We're from Jackson, Miss. We are black and white women. We are seeing each other here and knowing each other for the first time. But we know one thing, we will never be apart again." And then she said, "Don't give up. A national organization is like a long-handled spoon: you can come in and stir us up and get us moving."
I always thought that that was a good demonstration of what Mrs. Bethune had in mind, in saying that when you think about it, there is no such thing as just being local when you're part of a national movement. And that that sense of being a part of a national movement came through in some very real ways. We had after that, workshops in Mississippi, which got us into housing – into housing with low-income families. We were working with hunger, pig banks – we established pig banks and pig agreements with families. Because the people we saw in the workshops in Mississippi said to us, "We are concerned about our rights, but we have no jobs and our children have to eat." And so we helped them to see how to plant gardens, how to – I don't know, you don't grow pigs – (laughter) raise pigs, I guess; how to deal with pigs and we taught them how to feed them. And some of those people said to us afterwards, "We learned through those pigs that it makes a difference what you eat. And many of us have never had the food that we needed."
Today, the National Council of Negro Women is able to report that we have assets that are some four to five million dollars. But we could not have even thought about this before 1965 when we got our tax exemption. December 1, 1965. There's a recent report just released on philanthropy to women's organizations. And it cites five organizations and we rank third in terms of organizations who have received substantial support from foundations. In 1966, when the Ford Foundation made us a grant of $300,000, that was the most that it or any other foundation had given to a women's organization. 1966. Just think of that. So it shows you where women's groups were.
Out of that experience, we learned one thing: that the Council, in order to do the job, had to have the supporting services of staff. We had to have staff who could understand that they were part of an organization that is essentially volunteer, but that their job was to be a part of a partnership and to be supportive. And so today across this country, in some 20 locations, we have moved to the point where we have staff working at many different levels. There are some 146 of them. There are 72 who will be in this convention. But the important thing is not their numbers, nor that there are jobs, but it is the realization that where black women are in a society requires that we have the capability to work at our needs not after hours but all through the day. That some of that continuity has to come through the kind of devoted, skilled work that staff give: disciplined and directed, but responsive to the interests and concerns of the volunteers and the membership of the National Council of Negro Women.
I think another piece of movement I'd like to mention that I think has affected us over these years, came because we were working to put [a statue of] Mrs. Bethune in Lincoln Park. When we started out in 1960, people said this was, you know, just something that we were discussing. But how could we stand to see Abraham Lincoln with a slave at his knee, put there by the emancipated group in 1874 with the funds raised by the newly emancipated citizens, and not try to place on the other end of that park a memorial that would say black people have made a contribution in American life? Charlotte Scott gave the first five dollars she earned in her freedom to start the Emancipation Group. And, so we called upon people across the country to respond.
In the course of things Abraham Lincoln was turned around so that his back would not face Mrs. Bethune. [laughter] Every time we say that, the Interior Department corrects us and says, "He was not turned around; he was repositioned." [laughter and applause]
Another movement that hit us very hard was the movement of women. And when you ask me the question that you've asked us all about [which was worse], racism or sexism, I have to say that the International Women's Year found itself with a unique contribution because, not only of our domestic work, but of our international interests and the things that we have tried to do. Because it was at that time, at the 100th anniversary of Mrs. Bethune's birth, that we were determined that we would make and expand on the international interests. There's so many things. Mrs. Mason and I were in Haiti working in the name of the National Council of Negro Women to get the vote for women there. I thought for the moment it was Mrs. Bethune's administration and I asked Vivian today and she said no, it was Dr. Ferebee's administration. But they all used the same techniques. I was then president of Delta Sigma Theta, and we were called and asked to go. Vivian represented the Council; Laura Lovely, [inaudible]Kappa Alpha, and I, Delta Sigma Theta, and when we said, "Where are the funds?" They said, "Oh, well of course we know your groups will see that you get there." [laughter] And they did, but that's the way the Council was represented for years and years. For we went into our pockets and when you got there you said, "I represent the National Council of Negro Women." [laughter and applause] And, you were proud to do it!
So it was to be understood that in International Women's Year, we would get support to have at Mexico City, a group of women from Africa and from the Caribbean. And then we had the chance to bring them back with us to let them see the pig banks; to go to visit the housing; to visit people; and then to join us for the 100th birthday celebration of Mary McLeod Bethune at Bethune-Cookman College. And, I tell you, that is an occasion that we will never forget.
But it also heightened the fact that we are part of a whole women's movement. I think very strongly that no group has more right to say that than we. Bill Trent tells a story that's a favorite of mine. He says that Mrs. Bethune once had a meeting in Memphis, and she'd asked a nationally known black male to make the keynote address. And as he stood, he looked at the women and he said, "If you women would be as concerned about what you put in your heads, as what you are about what you have on heads, our race would be better off." And, he said at that point, Mrs. Bethune rose and said, "Thank you sir, you have said quite enough." [laughter and applause] "The women will decide what they have on their heads and what they put in their heads." [laughter and applause]
Now, I think any organization that follows that has to be concerned about women. But when you ask me the question about race and sex, I want to add something else that I saw recently in a poster. And that poster was a woman who had two chains; she was chained down with two very heavy pieces of stone, with chains on her legs. And the heading underneath was "Double Trouble." And the idea that it reflected was, take one away – one said "racism" and the other said "sexism" – take one away and she is still tied down. Take the other away and leave that one, she's still tied down. The only way she will make it: they both have to be eliminated. [applause] And I think that as we move into our convention with an idea of imperatives for the '80s, we need to work very hard to eliminate both racism and sexism.
Two things I want to say about our internal life. One is that the spirit of collaboration and cooperation that has been expressed in the wider society has also touched us. In 1969, we had a meeting at Nassau, in which the national organizations comprising the National Council of Negro Women said, "It is so important to build this power that we must get every member we can in our organizations to become a direct member. And that small amount that each one contributes each year, can help us to build our strength." We're far from achieving that goal, but seven of our national organizations, even this year, have called upon their members to do this and it is coming in steadily. Because you know, as I think it was Billie Holiday [who] said it, "Mama may have and Papa may have, but God bless the child that's got his own." [applause]
Now, because as proud as we are of what we have achieved, the fact is that today we have about a 99 percent batting average in our request for government and foundation support. But we are concerned that we also keep building that internal support, because those funds come but they're earmarked, you're not free to use them. It is what we do ourselves that makes the difference. Now the other thing that is a characteristic we've been working on, is the realization that with revenue sharing, with the new federalism, with everything moving to the states, black women had better learn to get themselves together in those states, because [applause] decisions are being made in the states. And while we considered clustering areas and regions, we now are trying to see that we look at the status as the black women in each of the states and try to amass our power there.
So, you see, we are in the state of still becoming. We have so far to go. But I remember two things that were said this morning, that have kind of stayed with me all day. It was what Jeanetta Welch Brown said when she said, [there's been] a lot of talk about some of the early days – and each of us could tell you a whole lot of things – but what she said came through to me: "There's been a lot of suffering that has gone into building the National Council of Negro Women." A lot of people in many places have put a lot into it. And then Sue Bailey Thurman, remember what she said in her message: "This is an organization of women with caring hearts." I look back and realize that I've been a part of the Council since 1937. And I don't think that outside of my mother and my church, there's been anything, any person of greater influence than Mary McLeod Bethune. And I think the thing that I'm sure if we could all say it as a trio, we would want to say, is that the thing about the National Council of Negro Women that is its greatest source of strength, is the depth of the vision of the dream that Mrs. Bethune left with us.
Who, except a great dreamer could be born of slave parents, could struggle in the fields of South Carolina, and leave a legacy that begins with the words, "I leave you love?" And if you take this message, it seems to me, that when we look to what's to happen in the future, it isn't going to be just by, you know, designating this post, or that post, or this staff or that volunteer, or this whatever. It's going to be the extent to which all of us rededicate ourselves – whether we are members of Council or not – to the idea of seeing how caring hearts take hold of a mission and keep it relevant, because what we did in '79 is not going to be good enough in the '80s. Thank you.
Speech from http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/blackspeech/dheight.html.