Obama Eulogizes Civil Rights Icon Dorothy Height

President Obama eulogized civil rights icon Dorothy Height on Thursday, as a woman who "deserves a place of honor in America's memory." Height died last week at the age of 98.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

At the Washington National Cathedral today, a final farewell to civil rights leader Dorothy Height. Height died last week at the age of 98. Among those in attendance: President and Mrs. Obama, members of Congress, celebrity entertainers and ordinary people who came to pay tribute to Height's life and her achievements. Mr. Obama called her a drum major for justice who helped make the country a better place.

NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES: People from all walks of life, from senior citizens to high school students, from the rich to the not so rich, men and most especially women lined up around the ornate cathedral wanting to honor Dorothy Height.

Garcia Bellamy, one of Heights' sorority sisters, says Height has been an inspiration to her.

Ms. GARCIA BELLAMY: In the Civil Rights Movement, you're seeing her in those pictures where everybody around her are men and then you see Dr. Height.

KEYES: Nineteen-year-old Delvio Martinez(ph), a high school senior standing in line with classmates, says he'd heard of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., but he didnt know anything about Height until yesterday. But since then...

Mr. DELVIO MARTINEZ: I've learned that she was a person behind the scenes making moves. And she was just a great entrepreneur and a great speaker, and she paved the way for women.

(Soundbite of singing)

KEYES: Height was a lifelong activist and spent decades with the YWCA and 41 years as national president at the National Council of Negro Women. Speaker after speaker praised Height's tireless energy, dedication and humility, including President Obama, who wiped tears from his eyes during a performance of one of Height's favorite songs. Later, during his eulogy, he talked about how he and the first lady got to know Height during his campaign.

President BARACK OBAMA: We came to love her stories and we loved her smile. And we loved those hats that she wore like a crown, regal.

KEYES: Mr. Obama says Height got to be a regular at the White House, visiting 21 times. And he told a story he says captures her dignified persistence. Just before the blizzard hit Washington last February, the president had invited Height to join him and several male civil rights leaders to discuss unemployment. He offered to reschedule.

President OBAMA: She was not about to let just a bunch of men...

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

President OBAMA: ...in this meeting.

(Soundbite of applause)

President OBAMA: It was only when the car literally could not get to her driveway that she reluctantly decided to stay home. But she still sent a message about what needed to be done.

KEYES: Camille Cosby, who lovingly stroked Height's casket as she walked by, spoke of how she and her entertainer husband, Bill, loved Height and how they often sent her flowers to make her smile.

Dr. CAMILLE COSBY (President, National Visionary Leadership Project): Which is what we wanted to accomplish, to surround her with nature's beauties while she was immersed in fighting our nation's evil-isms: racism, sexism, classism and ageism.

KEYES: Former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman was very close to Height and says Height was still teachings lessons right up till the end.

Ms. ALEXIS HERMAN (Former Secretary of Labor): The same lessons that she had been teaching us all of her life, to keep fighting and to never take yourself out of the game.

(Soundbite of singing)

KEYES: Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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