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Still Standing on the Shoulders of Greatness

Mourning the loss of Dr. Dorothy I. Height and Dr. Benjamin Hooks, whose decisions to stand up and oppose what is wrong changed the way all Americans live their lives.

  • Nicole Austin-Hillery
April 21, 2010

As a first-generation African-American female civil rights attorney, I have always been aware of the sacrifices that were made and the lives given so that I could attach that title to my lowly name. I was reminded of these sacrifices yesterday, on hearing the news of the death of Dr. Dorothy I. Height, one of the pre-eminent civil rights pioneers and President Emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women. Dr. Height’s passing comes on the heels of the death of another civil rights giant, Dr. Benjamin Hooks, former head of the NAACP. This seems a good moment to take stock of the civil rights warriors whose lives embolden me and sparked my decision to become a civil rights attorney.

Some people are enamored with celebrities and the lives they lead. I am enamored by the civil rights leaders whose decisions to stand up and oppose what is wrong – with their voices, their bodies, their lives – changed the way all Americans live their lives.

This morning, I stopped to reflect on the privilege I’ve had to meet some of my heroes and heroines and to say, thank you. Early in my career I met almost all of the Little Rock Nine; I remember feeling as though the stories that I read about their desegregation efforts had suddenly come to life! I was nearly speechless when I met Congressman John Lewis; I’d read his biography “Walking With the Wind” and made my way to his office where he graciously answered my questions as I tried to map out how my generation of civil rights leaders might succeed, as he had, in forging change. I still get chills when I think about meeting Dr. Height in Durbin, South Africa during the World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia; I remember feeling amazed that her effort to forge equality for people of color and women meant that, despite being wheelchair bound, she was “no ways [too] tired” to travel half-way across the world in a continued quest for equal justice. And how lucky I am to have had the honor of meeting Dr. Benjamin Hooks, just months ago when I listened intently as he told stories of his early years in the struggle.

Today, in some ways, is for me much like the day candidate Obama became President-Elect Obama. I shed many tears that day. Not because this country elected its first African-American President but because I remembered all of the lives that were lost and the blood that was shed so that November 8th, 2008 would be possible. I shed tears today as I mourn the losses of Dr. Benjamin Hooks and Dr. Dorothy Height and remember that I continue to stand on the shoulders of their greatness.