Known for her colorful hats and regal air, Dorothy Height stood on podiums with Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. John Lewis, and spoke at the Million Man March. Called a "national treasure" for her role in the civil rights movement, Ms. Height died Tuesday at age 98.
Coming a week after the death of former NAACP president Benjamin Hooks, Height's passing is part of a wrenching generational shift in a civil rights movement fighting to stay relevant in an America that has elected its first black president.
But as those who faced police batons and fire hoses fade from the scene and groups like Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference face internal coups, there is also hope for a new generation of black activists to influence popularly elected black leaders like Barack Obama in the fight against what one political scientist calls America's "residual racism."
"When your organization is not perceived as the National Council of Negro Women but as a group of old black ladies, it makes the organization a bit of an anachronism," says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta and expert on African American politics. "But given the fact that there's still residual racism and structural inequality, protest organizations can in many ways shine light on these issues in ways that even black elected officials still often can't."
Dream of a 'colorless society'
Ms. Height's dream was "freedom in a colorless society."
In some ways, that statement cuts to the core of the civil rights movement’s struggles since Congress passed laws against racial discrimination in the 1960s. Despite concerns about racism rearing up around the tea party movement, for example, there is simply less apparent inequality in the United States for protest groups to coalesce around.
At the same time, young black politicians like Obama, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker have challenged older figures such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Mr. Lewis in recent years, winning elections on "post-racial" platforms.
"The new politicians have based their appeal on anything but race," wrote Paul Harris of the British newspaper the Observer before Obama's election. "They have forged voter coalitions across racial boundaries, including whites and Hispanics. And it has worked."
Nowhere is the divide more apparent than in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Martin Luther King Jr. This week, two separate groups fought for domination of the SCLC, holding two separate board meetings in Atlanta and Eutaw, Ala.
The central issue is a federal investigation into missing funds, but the internal coup attempt points to an organization facing an existential crisis.
“It’s time for those who would pimp the organization to step aside,” SCLC general counsel Dexter Wimbish told the Associated Press. “But when they step aside, what do we have left?"
The movement has faced other embarrassments around its aging core. Earlier this year, Juanita Goggins, the first black woman elected to state office in South Carolina, froze to death in her Columbia home, largely forgotten by the movement she championed.
Voting together, despite organizational dispute
The civil rights movement's troubles, however, don’t necessarily signify a split in the black electorate, 95 percent of whom voted for Obama in 2008. And despite deep historic divides over vision, strategy, and politics in the civil rights movement, most black Americans operate on the idea of "linked fate" that guides them at the ballot box, says Professor Gillespie at Emory.
"As it relates to voting behavior we still see the idea of 'linked fate' at play," says Gillespie. "Blacks are not individualistic when thinking about votes, and Republicans haven't figured this out and haven't been able to craft a message that's going to appeal to black voters, even though blacks agree [with Republicans] on certain issues."
For her part, Height saw fighting inequality as well as racism as central to her role in the National Council of Negro Women.
According to the Washington Post, "she often urged her co-workers to 'stop worrying about whose name gets in the paper and start doing something about rats, and day care and low wages.”
“We must try to take our task more seriously and ourselves more lightly," she said.