YWCA and the March on Washington: a Call for Eliminating Racism and Empowering Women

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YWCA and the March on Washington: a Call for Eliminating Racism and Empowering Women


By Dr. Danielle Moss Lee
CEO of the YWCA of the City of New York

Dorothy Height was an active civil rights leader but did not speak at the March on Washington.
Dorothy Height was an active civil rights leader but did not speak at the March on Washington.

As a kid growing up in New York City, I had the privilege of having the Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker as my Senior Pastor at Canaan Baptist Church. Dr. Walker had previously served as Chief of Staff to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and as such, our congregation and worship traditions were deeply shaped around the traditions begun and sacrifices made during the Civil Rights Movement. That experience, coupled my with mother’s special brand of intellectual activism – I could recite Langston Hughes by age 6 – make this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom a special time for personal and professional reflection.

The year 1963 was significant – it marked the 100-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and breathed new life into the Civil Rights Movement as those who’d been fighting for social justice and equality for generations began to reflect on the impact of their sacrifice and the potential for our country to live up to its founding moral credos. Schools still suffered from segregation despite the Supreme Court ruling 9 years prior, lines were still drawn between whites and Blacks, and politicians were still pledging to keep the races apart. The dream for racial, educational, political, and economic equality Dr. King spoke about on that on the steps of the Lincoln Monument that day was still an illusive yet longed for vision for my parents and grandparents.

This week, many will commemorate that historic event with bus rides to the original site where our spirits soared and our collective voice rang in unison for liberty and justice for all. But, we must also ask ourselves, in 50 years, how far have we have we really come? And, it’s especially fitting for us at the YWCA of the City of New York to challenge ourselves around that very question. After all, our mission is “eliminating racism, empowering women.” Of course, my mother and grandmothers faced a more daunting world as they worked to raise and nurture their children than the one they helped create for me. But we’ve still got so far to go. This year, we saw an all out assault on the Voting Rights Act that was intended to protect the rights of African Americans and other disenfranchised members of our society to vote and have their voices heard. We’ve seen a widening of the opportunity gap between Black and white students – a gap that had all but closed in 1986, but now looks more like that which existed in 1966. And, many gains made on behalf of women on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement are also under attack. Women still make, on average, less than men who do the same jobs.

If I didn’t have the privilege of being part of the YW’s global social justice movement, I might get discouraged. But, I’m walking a road that was paved in large part by the late, great Dr. Dorothy I. Height. As a young person, I was well aware of her leadership of the National Council of Negro Women and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. But, coming to the YWCA has given me even greater perspective on this courageous woman. I’ve been most encouraged by her commitment to the YWCA, where she held increasingly higher leadership roles for over thirty years, including Assistant Executive Director of the Harlem YWCA, Director of the National YWCA School for Professional Workers, and Director of the Center for Racial Justice. In fact, it was her leadership, passion and compassion that in large part led the YWCA to adopt an interracial charter in 1946 which stated an abiding commitment to combating racism within not only within the ranks of the YWCA but also within the communities where we work and across the world. I think of the conversations I’ve had in multiracial settings on race, class, and privilege and I cannot imagine the patience, compassion, and vision it must have required for her to make such an historic contribution in 1946.

The history books don’t always recognize the labor and contributions of women like Dr. Dorothy I. Height, Ms. Ella Baker (a chief political strategist for SCLC and SNCC), Daisy Bates (who led the Little Rock 9), Rosa Parks (an activist and secretary of the NAACP), and others. In fact, many were shocked when the final program for the March was released and Dr. Height was not scheduled to speak. But, their leadership helped to bring us this far, and their legacies live on for us at the YWCA of the City of New York through our work on behalf the disenfranchised and women everywhere. We may not be where we want to be, but we’ve certainly come a long way.

Dr. Danielle Moss Lee became the Chief Executive Officer of the YWCA of the City of New York in 2012, after serving for ten years as President and CEO of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund.

Cross-posted with permission from the YWCA of the City of New York