As we celebrate National Volunteer Week and the one year anniversary of the Serve America Act, I urge you to take a moment to remember two of America’s greatest civil rights and service leaders who recently passed away – Dorothy Height and Benjamin Hooks.
For more than 60 years, Dorothy Height stood on the frontlines of the civil rights and women’s movements. As far back as 1933, when African American women were relegated to secondary roles both in American society and within the civil rights community, she emerged as a powerful voice for social change. Her early associations with women like Mary McCloud Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt inspired her to leadership roles with the YWCA and later, the National Council of Negro Women, an organization she headed from 1957 to 1998 when she became Chair and President Emerita.
Dorothy Height was one of the few women who penetrated the inner circle of the civil rights movement. She marched with Dr. King and was on the platform at the Lincoln Memorial when he delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
If Rosa Parks was the mother of the civil rights movement, Dorothy Height was its queen. She insisted, until her death at the age of 98, that America live up to its promise of equality and justice for all regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. She counseled numerous presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama and was one of only a handful of Americans to have been awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Dr. Benjamin Hooks is regarded as one of the most effective leaders in the history of the NAACP. During his tenure as Executive Director and CEO of the NAACP, from 1977 to 1992, he dramatically increased membership and revived the influence of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1925, Dr. Hooks recalls the days in the Jim Crow south when he was denied access to public facilities and restaurants. He once said, “I wish I could tell you every time I was on a highway and couldn’t use a bathroom. My bladder is messed up today because of that, and my stomach is messed up from eating cold sandwiches.”
As a lawyer, preacher and civil rights leader, Ben Hooks helped abolish Jim Crow and devoted his life to making sure no American would ever have to suffer the indignities that were common during the early years of his life. In 1972, he became the first African American member of the Federal Communications Commission. He used that platform to fight vigorously for more positive images of minorities on radio and television and to increase minority employment and ownership within the broadcast media.
Hooks also served as Chairman of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and helped create the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis.
Dorothy Height and Benjamin Hooks broke down barriers to equality that many of us may have forgotten ever existed and they paved the way for Barack Obama and new era of opportunity and empowerment in America. They were an inspiration to the service movement and to all Americans.
Patrick Corvington is CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.