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'Open Wide the Freedom Gates': She Shall
hen a new principal arrived in 1928 at the nearly all-white Rankin High School in Rankin, Pa., he forbade Dorothy Height, a black student who usually led the singing at school assemblies, from ever doing so again. At the first assembly after the edict, when the accompanist began the Rankin alma mater, the students refused to sing. The pianist began twice more; still the students were silent. Finally, the exasperated principal motioned Dorothy to the stage. The student body rose en masse, and a chorus split the air.
''It was a very strange experience, almost as if it had been organized,'' Height writes in her memoir, ''Open Wide the Freedom Gates.'' That she could inspire a spontaneous protest among a group of white teenagers in pre-Depression America was testament to her faith and strength -- qualities that have carried her through a distinguished career in social activism. Now 91, Height was a longtime Y.W.C.A. executive and president of the National Council of Negro Women; in the early days of the civil rights movement, she was the only woman in the leadership circles, and she's been an adviser to presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton.
Though Height offers no startling insights into the momentous events she has lived through or the influential people she has known, her book gives a poignant short course in a century of African-American history. She was born in Richmond, Va., in 1912, when Jim Crow ruled and lynchings were not uncommon. Her mother was a nurse in a Negro hospital; her father was a building contractor. When she was 4, the Heights became part of the great migration of blacks to the North, settling in a multiethnic neighborhood of mostly recent European immigrants in Rankin.
Even as a child, Height showed a fearlessness about speaking out. At 12, after being denied entrance to a Y.W.C.A. pool in Pittsburgh, she demanded to talk to the center's director. She got an audience with the woman in charge, who explained that girls of color were not welcome. Height recounts this and similar incidents without bitterness. Her conviction that she could overcome all prejudice against her was rewarded in her senior year of high school, when she placed first in an Elks-sponsored national oratorical contest on the Constitution and won a college scholarship.
After Barnard refused to admit her because its ''two Negro'' quota was already filled, Height enrolled at New York University. She graduated in three years, earned an M.A. in educational psychology and became a social worker. Her involvement in the Christian Youth Movement led next to the Y.W.C.A. Throughout her years there, she spent most of her free time volunteering for the National Council of Negro Women, where she created ''Wednesdays in Mississippi,'' a 60's program that brought together Southern and Northern black and white women. She organized voter registration drives, set up day care facilities, school breakfast programs and job fairs, and started ''pig banks,'' to provide livestock to poor families. ''Although sometimes the men had trouble seeing why I was always linking desegregation with hunger and children and other social welfare issues, we had as strong a male-female peer relationship as people could at that time in history,'' she writes of her service on the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, along with Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young.
She doesn't explore this relationship or the personalities involved, a reticence that extends to her personal life, which she deals with only briefly. For decades Height lived with Yvonne Ray, a businesswoman whom she describes as ''one of my very best friends,'' and Robert Hall, the widower of Yvonne's twin sister, Marjorie. Ray and Hall functioned as Height's ''wives,'' cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring and packing suitcases, leaving Height free to think about nothing but work.
Height presents herself as a kind of secular nun. We have no reason to doubt her sincerity. She came of age at a time when many people were motivated by an uncynical sense of moral duty -- a force that has been at the heart of American activism since the beginning of the Republic, but that, sadly, seems to be fading. ''Today young people want to know, 'How can I advance?' Our question was, 'How can we make sure that people everywhere move ahead?' '' Height writes. ''We really believed . . . that we were building a new world.''
Gioia Diliberto is the author of ''A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams.'' Her most recent book is a novel, ''I Am Madame X.''