The Ancestors Claim Dorothy Height, 98
This sister ‘godmother of civil rights’ had seen it all, from the bad days of the Wilson presidency, to the small victories during Roosevelt’s four terms to Obama, the first black president. An acolyte of Mary McLeod Bethune, she was the only woman allowed on the stage during Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and she buried her friend, Coretta Scott King, while so many of their mutual friends were shut away from her funeral in 2006. She died quietly at Howard University Hospital between 3 and 4 in the morning today. There had been a flurry of rumors weeks before that she was either dead or dying, with Wikipedia recording her death while she was yet alive.
Height, who had been chair and president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women, worked in the 1960s alongside civil rights pioneers, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., future U.S. Rep. John Lewis and A. Philip Randolph. She was on the platform when King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington.
President Obama called her the “godmother” of the movement, noting she “served as the only woman at the highest level of the civil rights movement — witnessing every march and milestone along the way.”
“And even in the final weeks of her life — a time when anyone else would have enjoyed their well-earned rest, Dr. Height continued her fight to make our nation a more open and inclusive place for people of every race, gender, background and faith.”
Friend and former U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman said she was “deeply saddened” by Height’s death.
“She was a dynamic woman with a resilient spirit, who was a role model for women and men of all faiths, races and perspectives,” Herman said. “For her, it wasn’t about the many years of her life, but what she did with them.”
Height’s years of service span from Roosevelt to the Obama administration, the council said in a statement announcing her death and listing the highlights of her career.
Height was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 by President Clinton and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. She was among a handful of key African-American leaders to meet with Obama at the White House recently for a summit on race and the economy.
Her name is synonymous with the National Council of Negro Women, a group she led from 1957 to 1988, when she became the group’s chair and president emerita. She was also a key figure in the YWCA beginning in the 1930s.
She was also energetic in her efforts to overcome gender bias, and much of that work predated the women’s rights movement. When President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, Ms. Height was among those invited to the White House to witness the ceremony. She returned to the White House in 1998 for a ceremony marking the 35th anniversary of that legislation to hear Clinton urge passage of additional laws aimed at equalizing pay for men and women.
“Dorothy Height deserves credit for helping black women understand that you had to be feminist at the same time you were African . . . that you had to play more than one role in the empowerment of black people,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) once said.
As president of the National Council of Negro Women, Ms. Height was instrumental in organizing and sponsoring programs that emphasized self-help and self-reliance.
Those included nutrition, child care, housing and career counseling. In response to a public TV program, “The Vanishing Black Family,” Ms. Height helped create and organize the Black Family Reunion Celebration, which has been held on the Mall and in cities across the country annually since 1985. The gatherings are intended to honor the traditions, strength and history of African American families while seeking solutions to such social problems as teen pregnancy and drug abuse.
“The reunion is as important today as some of our marches were in the past,” Ms. Height said in 1992.
In 1995, Ms. Height was among the few women to speak at the Million Man March on the Mall, which was led by Louis Farrakhan, the chief minister of the Nation of Islam. “I am here because you are here,” she declared. Two years later, at 85, she sat at the podium all day, in the whipping wind and chill rain, at the Million Woman March in Philadelphia.
Initially, she was not kind to those in the black power movement, but she grudgingly came to support some of its aims, saying that, “White power in the system in which we live is a reality. . . Simply talking about bettering race relations without changing the power relations will get us nowhere.”
Dorothy Height never married. Her work was her life. Tall and regal, she was also called imposing, although in real life, she never had to raise her voice to get her point across, and in later life, though she was mostly wheelchair-bound, the vitality of her voice belied her age. She is survived by another long-lived sister, Anthanette Height Aldridge of New York. “She was often described as the “glue” that held the family of black civil rights leaders together. She did much of her work out of the public spotlight, in quiet meetings and conversations, and she was widely connected at the top levels of power and influence in government and business,” added the WaPo article heralding her death.
All that wind and rain, storm and fury, wasn’t going to kill her. But die she finally did, and it is one more of our best who has gone on to greatness.