Civil Rights Activist Dorothy Height Dies

  • Dorothy Height, national president of the National Council of Negro Women and director of the Center for Racial Justice of the national YWCA, poses for a photo in March 1974. Height, who was a longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women, was the leading female voice of the 1960s civil rights movement. She died Tues., April 20, at age 98.
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    Dorothy Height, national president of the National Council of Negro Women and director of the Center for Racial Justice of the national YWCA, poses for a photo in March 1974. Height, who was a longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women, was the leading female voice of the 1960s civil rights movement. She died Tues., April 20, at age 98.
    AP
  • Height (third from right) and other members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. present Mamie Eisenhower with a copy of their song, "There'll be a Jubilee," on May 14, 1953. Height was national president of the sorority from 1946-1957.
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    Height (third from right) and other members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. present Mamie Eisenhower with a copy of their song, "There'll be a Jubilee," on May 14, 1953. Height was national president of the sorority from 1946-1957.
    Byron Rollins/AP
  • Height listens to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during his "I Have a Dream" speech during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Height was the only woman on the speakers' platform.
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    Height listens to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during his "I Have a Dream" speech during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Height was the only woman on the speakers' platform.
    AP
  • Height, and other African-American leaders, chat after a meeting with New York City Mayor Robert Wagner on June 4, 1965.
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    Height, and other African-American leaders, chat after a meeting with New York City Mayor Robert Wagner on June 4, 1965.
    AP
  • President and Mrs. Reagan greet Height during a White House East Room reception on Thursday, July 28, 1983.
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    President and Mrs. Reagan greet Height during a White House East Room reception on Thursday, July 28, 1983.
    AP
  • Height taps the Liberty Bell to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 20, 1992. The bell ringing was simultaneous in hundreds of cities and countries around the world.
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    Height taps the Liberty Bell to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 20, 1992. The bell ringing was simultaneous in hundreds of cities and countries around the world.
    Chris Gardner/AP
  • President George H. Bush meets with Height and John Jacob of the Urban League, meet in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington on May 1, 1992. The president met with civil rights leaders to discuss the rioting in Los Angeles.
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    President George H. Bush meets with Height and John Jacob of the Urban League, meet in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington on May 1, 1992. The president met with civil rights leaders to discuss the rioting in Los Angeles.
    Marcy Nighswander/AP
  • President Clinton applauds Height after presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the White House East Room on Aug. 8, 1994.
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    President Clinton applauds Height after presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the White House East Room on Aug. 8, 1994.
    Doug Mills/AP
  • President Bush, second from left, presents the Congressional Gold Medal to Height on March 23, 2004.
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    President Bush, second from left, presents the Congressional Gold Medal to Height on March 23, 2004.
    Charles Dharapak/AP
  • Height (center) is accompanied by (from left) Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), former Ambassador Andrew Young, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington on Nov. 13, 2006.
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    Height (center) is accompanied by (from left) Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), former Ambassador Andrew Young, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington on Nov. 13, 2006.
    Lauren Victoria Burke/AP
  • Oprah Winfrey and Height during the Uncommon Height Gala honoring Winfrey in Washington, D.C., on June 4, 2009. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said, "Every black woman, it seems to me, has to see Dorothy Height as an inspiration."
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    Oprah Winfrey and Height during the Uncommon Height Gala honoring Winfrey in Washington, D.C., on June 4, 2009. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said, "Every black woman, it seems to me, has to see Dorothy Height as an inspiration."
    Jose Luis Magana/AP

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Legendary civil rights leader Dorothy Height, who spent most of her life battling for the empowerment of women and blacks and who had the ear of U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Obama, died Tuesday. She was 98.

She died of natural causes at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C.

In 1963, Height was the only woman on the speaker's platform when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. But she wasn't on the program for the March on Washington even though she was the nucleus of the meetings held by the mostly male civil rights leaders who planned it.

Height told NPR in 2003 that the experience was uplifting despite the fact that a gospel singer was the only woman heard from the podium that day.

"My being seated there had some very special meaning because women had been trying to get a woman to speak on the program," Height said, "but we were always met by the planners with the idea that women were represented in all of the different groups, in the churches, in the synagogues, in the unions, organizations and the like. So the only voice we heard of a woman was that of Mahalia Jackson."

Though not a scheduled speaker, Daisy Bates was ultimately allowed to say a few words at the event.

Height said women in the movement met the next day to discuss ways to deal with the issues of racism and sexism.

"All of it was toward saying how can we bring all the people who need to understand the role that women have played, but also the predicament women face, and especially we who are women of color, where we’ve had both sex and racial discrimination as a characteristic of our lives," she said.

By the 1960s, Height had already been focused on equality and fairness for more than 30 years. And she had dedicated her life to those battles.

'An Absolute Genius'

Dorothy Irene Height was born in Richmond, Va., on March 24, 1912, and grew up in Rankin, Pa. In high school, she won a scholarship to Barnard College after winning a national oratorical contest. But she arrived after Barnard had already admitted the two blacks it accepted per year at the time. Instead, Height earned her bachelor's and master’s degrees at New York University in four years and did postgraduate studies in social work. By 1933, Height was working against lynching and for reforms in the nation’s criminal justice system and for free access to public accommodations.

Height, who was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004, is perhaps best known for her work with the National Council of Negro Women. The group's headquarters in Washington, D.C., stands steps from where slaves were once traded in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Height was president emerita of the NCNW.

Harvard professor Charles Ogletree called Height "an absolute genius."

"Everything that we do today is influenced by her sacrifices decades ago, her marches as a teenager against lynching, her buying a building right on Pennsylvania Avenue to in a sense to talk about the slave trade, and her commitment to open up doors for others is unparalleled," Ogletree said.

In 1937, Height was working with the YWCA in Harlem and was assigned to escort Eleanor Roosevelt into one of the Negro women's group meetings. NCNW founder Mary McLeod Bethune noticed Height and asked the young woman to join the organization’s quest for women's rights for full, equal employment, pay and education. In addition to her 33 years on the national board of the YWCA and her nearly 40 years with the NCNW, Height also served as national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. from 1947 to 1957. The tiny woman was known for her impeccable attire — and her stylish, striking hats.

"Every black woman, it seems to me, has to see Dorothy Height as an inspiration," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's representative in Congress.

She said everyone who was either a feminist or in the civil rights struggle has worked with Height. But black women are not the only ones who were in awe of her, according to Holmes Norton.

"Dorothy Height gets the same kind of hush when she comes into a room full of white women," the lawmaker said.

Darlene Clark Hine, a professor of history and African-American studies at Northwestern University, said Height "was able to engender greater conversations — dialog, communication — between white and black women."

She said Height's ability to bridge racial, regional and class divides between women was important, but that it was her focus on education, voter registration and political mobilization that was vital to black women, who weren't able to engage in the political process at the same level as their white counterparts after women got the vote in 1920.

A Leader In The Civil Rights Movement

Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) said Height should be counted among the leaders of the movement. Her ability to distill a message and direction from a roomful of dissenting voices, he said, was extraordinary.

"Dorothy Height emerged at a time when there was male chauvinism at its height," Lewis said.

She "had the rare ability — and I think part of it was just innate — to sort of soothe the conflict, the division, the schism, and bring people together," Lewis said. "Being a woman, but more than just being a woman, she could say, 'Now brethren, now brothers and sisters,' and people listened to her."

Dorothy Height presents Eleanor Roosevelt with the Mary McLeod Bethune Human Rights Award in 1960. i i

Dorothy Height presents Eleanor Roosevelt with the Mary McLeod Bethune Human Rights Award in 1960. At the time, Height was president of the National Council of Negro Women. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Bettmann/Corbis
Dorothy Height presents Eleanor Roosevelt with the Mary McLeod Bethune Human Rights Award in 1960.

Dorothy Height presents Eleanor Roosevelt with the Mary McLeod Bethune Human Rights Award in 1960. At the time, Height was president of the National Council of Negro Women.

Bettmann/Corbis

Her fundraising abilities were legendary. "She could call her white sisters and Jewish sisters and others — she could get on the telephone and call the Rockefellers, the Fords and others, and they'd listen to her," Lewis said.

Height continued to fight for equal justice up until the end of her life. In 2008, she told NPR — while wearing a feathered purple chapeau with a fetching bow — that there is unfinished business in civil rights.

"We don't need the marches we had in the past," she said. "But we need more consideration in looking at the boardroom tables and at the policies that are going on — looking at what's happening in industry, what's happening in terms of employment opportunities, housing and the like."

And Height left a message for the young people she has worked with so passionately throughout her career. The younger generations, she said, are the beneficiaries of what a lot of people worked and gave their lives for. It is important for the young to get organized in how they will serve others, because when people work for something bigger than themselves, there's no way they can help but grow.

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