Special Assignment

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Dorothy HeightIn 1925, as I was graduating from elementary school in the eighth grade in Rankin, which is a little borough of Pittsburgh, a Croatian student and I who were planning the class activities realized that there were 57 of us and at that time, there were the Heinz 57 varieties. So, we proposed to our class that we write to H. J. Heinz and ask to be invited down to visit, to see their plant and all of the things that they had, so that we could learn more about what you would need to know if you were going to work in a place like that.

Well, the class immediately asked me to write the letter, which I did, and I now think that was my first corporate letter. So, we wrote and we were invited. And then of course, the teachers got into the act. And they said ?Well, you can?t go there if you don?t have your table manners? and so we learned all the things about how to use the different spoons and forks and so forth, because, in addition to having us come to the plant, H. J. Heinz said we will have all of you to lunch at the William Penn Hotel. Well, that was my first hotel meal and the preparation we did, the 45 minutes from Rankin to downtown Pittsburgh, was filled with all kinds of expectations, but we were very happy. And when we came home, all of us had our Heinz 57 pickle pin… and in case the rest of the school didn?t know we were the Heinz 57, we wore those pins until our graduation day.?

But there is no way at that time, in that little town, that I would ever have dreamed, or imagined, or thought, or anything, that tonight I would receive an award, the Heinz Award, and it would be in memory and recognition of the contribution of Senator Heinz, a politician extraordinaire, a statesman, a humanitarian, one in whom all of us who were working on the kinds of issues in which I work every day found that we always had a friend.

That there was, that he had an abiding concern about Social Security. He was a friend of the earth and a friend of the earth?s people that he cared about environmental justice as he did about other matters. That he was concerned about people who had pensions; those who worked all of their lives and often had nothing to show.

And so, this is a special honor for me to have my name identified with the name of Senator John Heinz. It means so much to me to have the Chair?s Medal, because it means that you have put a very special assignment on me: To be ever-vigilant, to be as concerned as the one for whom this is named, not about just one?s self, but about others; and not about privilege, but making available opportunity.

I was reminded as I thought about tonight, of Alan Paton, a South African, who in the middle of the worst fights on apartheid said, ?Life has taught me, that in the face of man?s inhumanity to man, the only way to endure is to exemplify in one?s own life, man?s humanity to man.? That I have tried to do, and that I will continue to try to do.

A woman born of slave parents, Mary McLeod Bethune, who said ?leave no one behind? and that was also the spirit of John Heinz, inspires me. And I?m also ever drawn by the necessity to follow Martin Luther King?s admonition, that we all need each other because, he said, ?the Black man needs the white man to free him of his fear and the white man needs the Black man to free him of his guilt.? And we come together in the spirit that this award represents. It is important that we all work together.

And so I thank you for this challenge. I thank you for this award. We?ve come a long way. We have a long way to go, but we have a great model to show us the way to go, and I want to assure you that I hope to prove worthy of this award, and so long as God shall let me live, I hope to be with you in the struggle to help create not only a United States of America, but a world, in which we have not only law and order, but equality and justice.? ??? ?


Dorothy Height (1912?2010), former president of the National Council of Negro Women and a leading activist in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, gave the above speech in March 2001 upon her acceptance of the Heinz Awards Chair?s Medal.?