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Civil Rights Activist Dorothy Height Dies
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Civil Rights Activist Dorothy Height Dies

Remembrances

Civil Rights Activist Dorothy Height Dies
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A legendary leader of the Civil Rights Movement died today, after spending most of her 98 years battling for the empowerment of women and African-Americans. Dorothy Height was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, and over her long life she had the ear of U.S. presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama.

NPR's Allison Keyes has this remembrance.

Ms. MAHALIA JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) (unintelligible)

ALLISON KEYES: In 1963, Dorothy Height was the only woman on the speaker's platform when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream" speech. But she wasn't on the program for that 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 the experience was uplifting, even though a gospel singer was the only female heard from the podium that day.

Dr. DOROTHY HEIGHT (President Emerita, NCNW): My being seated there had some very special meaning because women had been trying to get a woman to speak on the program. 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. And so the only voice we heard of a woman was that of Mahalia Jackson.

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

Dr. HEIGHT: 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 for our lives.

KEYES: 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.

Dorothy Irene Height was born in Richmond, Virginia on March 24th, 1912, and grew up in Rankin, Pennsylvania. In high school, she won a scholarship to Barnard College after winning a national oratorical contest, but she arrived after the school had already admitted the two blacks it accepted per year at the time.

Instead, Height earned her bachelor 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, for reforms in the nation's criminal justice system and for free access to public accommodations.

Professor CHARLES OGLETREE (Harvard Law School): Dorothy Height is an absolute genius.

KEYES: Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree paused to consider the legacy of a woman he calls a shero. Height is perhaps best known for her work with the National Council of Negro Women, which is based in Washington, D.C.

Prof. OGLETREE: 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, talk about the slave trade. And her commitment to open up doors for others is unparalleled.

KEYES: The group's headquarter stands steps from where slaves were once traded in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Height was president emerita of the NCNW.

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 Height's 33 years on the national board of the YWCA and her nearly 40 years with the National Council of Negro Women, Height also served as the national president of African-American service sorority Delta Sigma Theta from 1947 to 1957.

The tiny woman was known for her impeccable attire and her stylish, striking hats.

Delegate ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (Democrat, Washington, D.C.): Every black woman, it seems to me, has to see Dorothy Height as an inspiration.

KEYES: Washington, D.C.'s Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton says everyone who was either a feminist or in the civil rights struggle has worked with Height. But the lawmaker says African-American women were not the only ones in awe of Height.

Rep. NORTON: And interestingly, Dorothy Height gets the same kind of hush when she comes into a room full of white women.

Professor DARLENE CLARK HINE (History and African American Studies, Northwestern University): She was able to engender greater conversations, dialog, communication between white and black women.

KEYES: Darlene Clark Hine is a professor of History and African American Studies at Northwestern University. She says Height's ability to bridge racial, regional and class divides between women was very important. But she says Height's focus on education, voter registration and political mobilization were 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.

Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): Dorothy Height emerged at a time when there was male chauvinism at its height.

KEYES: Georgia Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis says Dorothy Height should be counted among the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. He says her ability to distill a message and directions from a room full of dissenting voices was extraordinary.

Rep. LEWIS: Dorothy Height had the rare ability - and I think part of it was just innate - to sort of sooth the conflict, the division, the schism, and bring people together. Being a woman, but more than just being a woman, she could say now brethren, my brothers and sisters, and people listened to her.

KEYES: Lewis says Height's fundraising abilities were legendary.

Rep. LEWIS: She could call her white sisters and Jewish sisters and others. She can get on that telephone and call the Rockefellers, the Fords and others, and they would listen to her.

KEYES: Up until the end of her life, Dr. Height continued to fight for equal justice. She told NPR in 2008 - wearing a feathered purple chapeau with a fetching bow - there is unfinished business in civil rights.

Dr. HEIGHT: We don't need the marches that we had in the past. 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.

KEYES: And Dorothy Height left a message for the young people she's worked with so passionately throughout her career. You, she said, are the beneficiaries of what a lot of people worked and gave their lives for. Height said 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. Dorothy Height was 98 years old.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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