Dixon, Margaret 1923(?)–
Margaret Dixon 1923(?)–
Organization executive, educator
The fastest growing segment of the American population is the elderly. Since the turn of the century, the percentage of Americans 65 or older has more than tripled, from 4.1 percent of the population in 1900 to 12.8 percent in 1995. It is predicted that by 2030, as the “baby boom” generation reaches retirement age, one in five Americans will be elderly. As older Americans have become a larger part of society, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has become a more powerful interest group. The Washington, D.C. based organization installed its first African American president, Dr. Margaret A. Dixon, in May of 1996.
“We would like to think that Margaret Dixon becoming president of AARP-it’s just coincidental that she is an African American,” Dixon said of herself to the Rocky Mountain News. “However, I have found that we haven’t reached that point yet. It is very significant. I have said let’s play it down. But the media is playing it up. As I move about the country, I find people are so proud--African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans--to see a minority person heading up AARP.”
Founded in 1958, AARP is America’s oldest and largest organization representing older Americans. Dixon believes that her appointment as AARP president shows that the organization is for all people. “AARP has a strong record of advocating the needs and concerns of all older Americans regardless of race, economic background, religion, etc.,” she explains in AARP public relations material. AARP’s attitude toward minorities will become even more vital in the twenty-first century. In 1995, non-whites made up about 15 percent of the U.S. elderly population. By 2030 that figure is expected to jump to 25 percent.
Dixon was born in Columbia, South Carolina sometime in the 1920s. She declines to reveal the exact year, telling the Chicago Tribune that “we’re all aging, and it doesn’t matter what step you’re on--as long as you’re hopeful and living a productive life a number doesn’t matter.” Dixon’s parents died when she was very young and she was brought up in Columbia by her grandparents who instilled in her a great love of learning. She recalled to the Chicago Tribune that her grandfather’s advice was to “learn everything you can. Get it in your head, and nobody can take it away from you.” There
Born in Columbia, SC, ca. 1923. Married Octavius Dixon in 1945; three children, four grandchildren. Education: Allen University, Columbia, SC, B.A. in Education; Hunter College and New York University, New York City, master of arts degrees; Nova Southeastern University, Ph.D. in Education; professional diploma in Educational Leadership, Fordham University, Bronx, NY.
Career: Educator m the New York City public school system, ca.1954-1980, with responsibilities, including teacher of physically challenged students; elementary school principal of PS 345, Brooklyn; director of a computer-assisted early learning program; supervising principal of the Teacher Education Program at Brooklyn College. Associate professor and director of teacher education, Allen University, Columbia, SC, ca.1981-1986. Consultant to South Carolina Department of Education, ca.1981-1986. AARP activities include spokeswoman for Minority Affairs Initiative; national secretary, 1990; vice president, 1992-1994; president elect, 1994-1996; president, May 1996-present
Awards: Delta Sigma Theta Living Legacy Award for Outstanding Community Service; Ford Foundation Fellowship for graduate study in education leadership; U.S. Office of Education graduate fellowship for study in education of people with disabilities; Women of Courage and Distinction Award from the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Inc.; Outstanding Graduate honor at Allen University’s 125th anniversary.
Addresses: Home– Clinton, MD Office– AARP, 601 E St., Washington, DC 20049
were a number of educators in Dixon’s family and her grandparents’ home was filled with books. Academic achievement was taken as a given. There was no celebration when Dixon brought home good grades, only a sense that she was meeting expectations.
Upon graduation from high school in the 1940s, Dixon realized that there were few career paths open to African American women. She chose education as a profession because her race and gender would pose relatively few problems in that field. Also, as she told the Chicago Tribune, she “didn’t like the sight of blood” so nursing, another career then acceptable for black women, was out of the question. Dixon attended Allen University, a historically black college in her hometown of Columbia, and studied education. With her bachelor’s degree in hand, Dixon headed for New York City where she became a teacher in the public school system. Over the course of 26 years with the New York City schools, Dixon was a teacher of physically challenged students, director of a computer-assisted early learning program, and, for her final eight years in the system, was principal of a large, urban elementary school, P.S. 345 in Brooklyn, for which she developed an innovative bilingual program. Her leadership at P.S. 345 resulted in the school being chosen as a campus school for the Brooklyn College Teacher Education Program. She was also supervising principal of the Brooklyn College program.
When Dixon retired from her work as an educator, she and her husband, Octavius, who had worked at the Economic Development Office of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, returned to their native South Carolina. Back in her home state, a retired but still extremely active Dixon was an associate professor and director of teacher education at Allen University, and served as a consultant to the state’s department of education. Along with her husband, Dixon volunteered with a literacy program and helped deliver meals to elderly and disabled neighbors. Encouraging AARP members to devote time to volunteer activities is a major thrust of Dixon’s presidency of the organization. “My vision is to see AARP all over the country as a service organization assisting people on a one-to-one basis as much as possible and meeting their needs in their communities,” Dixon explained to the Chicago Tribune.
She believes that volunteer work is often more interesting and rewarding than paid work and can enrich the life of anyone, regardless of age. Volunteering is especially important to retired people, since it provides an opportunity for them to continue offering their skills to society and to learn new skills. Also, volunteering helps to change the image of retirement from a time of idleness and depression to a time of action and vitality. “Some people look at retirement with fear and trepidation…but you must retire to something. You must have some idea of what you’re going to do some time in the future.” Dixon told the Washington Informer.
Despite their numerous volunteer activities in South Carolina, Dixon and her husband found small town life in the Palmetto State a bit too slow. “After you’ve been in the fast lane, it’s a little much to sit and look at the ducks on the lake,” she told the Chicago Tribune. After seven years they relocated to Clinton, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. The move brought the Dixons closer to their three children who all live in the Washington area. It was in Maryland that Dixon became involved with AARP. “A friend said after church ’I volunteered you for a position at AARP as a spokesperson for the Minority Affairs Initiative.’ That’s how I started in 1988,” she told the Rocky Mountain News.
Dixon quickly moved up the ranks at AARP, being elected vice-president in 1992, then succeeding automatically to the positions of President-elect in 1994, and President in 1996. The president’s gavel was passed to Dixon in May of 1996 at the AARP Biennial Convention in Denver. The convention’s theme was “Creating New Frontiers,” which was described by outgoing president Eugene I. Lehrmann in Modern Maturity as “a tribute to the new spirit of aging that recognizes our vitality and creativity as we cross the aging frontier.” More the 20,000 AARP members gathered to see Dixon installed as the new president and to listen to a powerhouse lineup of guest speakers, including former congress-woman and U.S. presidential candidate Shirley Chish-olm, financial analysts Jane Bryant Quinn and Louis Rukeyser, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, former senator and 1972 Democratic Party presidential nominee George McGovern, former congressman and cabinet secretary Jack Kemp, and entertainer Debbie Reynolds.
Anyone over the age of fifty is eligible to join AARP and in 1996 “baby boomers” began to join its ranks. Dixon welcomes them into the organization, explaining to the New Pittsburgh Courier that baby boomers are “bringing a whole new perspective to the meaning of aging. Their knowledge and experience, combined with those of their parents and grandparents, will enrich the aging experience in our society. “The nation’s most prominent baby boomer, President Bill Clinton, told the Washington Post that “I’m eligible and I’d be happy to belong [to AARP]. I worked hard for this for 50 years.” Sinceabout one-third of its over 30 million members are not retired, AARP considered changing its name but decided not to since the name has a history and is well-known to the public. However, the acronym AARP will be increasingly used and the full name of the organization will be de-emphasized to avoid having to use the word “retired.”
In recent years AARP has drawn fire for its opposition to Social Security and Medicare funding cuts. As American society ages, there will be fewer and fewer taxpaying workers to support these programs, making current methods of funding untenable. It has been noted that a sizable percentage of senior citizens are financially comfortable and, perhaps, do not need such generous government assistance as they currently receive. Many critics, especially those on the fiscal and social right-wing, view AARP as a bastion of outdated “tax and spend” attitudes. “Far from being a do-gooder senior lobby, AARP is the field artillery in a liberal army dedicated to defending the welfare state,” declared an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. Dixon concedes that Social Security and Medicare reform is necessary but is determined to make sure the programs are not destroyed in the process. She is quoted in AARP public relations material as saying that “AARP believes that there should be bipartisan discussions in Congress to come up with real and lasting solutions to preserve and strengthen both of these programs for our children and grandchildren.”
AARP’s status as a non-profit organization has been called into question. The organization generates a great deal of revenue from insurance policies, mutual funds, mail order pharmaceuticals, and other joint ventures with private companies. AARP’s income for 1994 was reported to be $383 million. In 1995, congressional hearings were instigated by Senator Alan Simpson, a Republican from Wyoming. The hearings investigated AARP’s use of a $86 million grant from the federal government to set up a job training program for the elderly. There was some suspicion that funds from the 1993 grant had been spent on lobbying activities. The hearings uncovered no wrongdoing on the part of AARP but the organization has since then improved its record keeping practices. Dixon told the Chicago Tribune that she believes Simpson used the hearings to divert AARP’s attention from Medicare cuts and to “have us so busy talking about this lobbying thing that we wouldn’t have time to pay attention to the Medicare cuts.”
In addition to her duties as President, Dixon serves on AARP’s Executive Committee, Board of Finance Committee, National Legislative Council, and is chair of the AARP Andrus Foundation Board of Trustees. Described as an articulate woman with the precise pronunciation of a long-time schoolteacher and an accent hinting at her Southern upbringing, Dixon enjoys sewing and making crafts but her work for AARP leaves her with little time for off-hour s pursuits.
Dixon told the Washington /n/ormerthatbeingheadof an enormous and influential organization such as AARP is “an opportunity I never thought I’d have. It’s a rare privilege to be in a position where I can get help for so many people.”
Chicago Tribune, April 14, 1996, section 14, p.6.
Consumer’s Research, September 1996, p. 15-18, 32.
The Economist, May 13, 1995, p.32.
Jet, May 6, 1996, p.36.
Modern Maturity, March/April 1996, p.83; May/June 1996, p.9; July/August 1996, p.76-77, 79; September/October 1996, p.87; November/December 1996, p.78-79.
National Review, September 11, 1995, p.44-48.
New Pittsburgh Courier, June 8, 1996, p.B6.
Newsweek, May 15, 1995, p.27.
Philadelphia Tribune, June 7, 1996, p.Al.
Rocky Mountain News, August 8, 1996, sections, S.p.2-4.
Wall Street Journal, May 25, 1995, p.A14.
Washington Informer, May 22, 1996, supplement, p.8.
Washington Post, January 19, 1997, p.A23.
Additional information for this article was provided by the AARP Media Relations Department.
—Mary C. Kalfatovic
"Dixon, Margaret 1923(?)–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dixon-margaret-1923
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