When leaders from all walks of life pass, some of the great newspapers due what they do best: tell the life story of the devoted soul that passed.
That is the case of Dorothy I. Height, 98, a founding matriarch of the American civil rights movement whose crusade for racial justice and gender equality spanned more than six decades.
Dorothy Height died early Tuesday morning of natural causes, a spokesperson for the National Council of Negro Women said.
Height was among the coalition of African American leaders who pushed civil rights to the center of the American political stage after World War II, and she was a key figure in the struggles for school desegregation, voting rights, employment opportunities and public accommodations in the 1950s and 1960s.
Click here to see a photo essay and read the stirring account of Height’s remarkable life, as written by the Bart Barnes in a special report to the Washington Post.
She was a pillar for the black community, an immovable object in the path of right. Ms. Height was president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, relinquishing the title in 1997. The 4 million-member advocacy group consists of 34 national and 250 community-based organizations. It was founded in 1935 by educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who was one of Ms. Height’s mentors.
As a civil rights activist, Height participated in protests in Harlem during the 1930s. In the 1940s, she lobbied first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on behalf of civil rights causes. And in the 1950s, she prodded President Dwight D. Eisenhower to move more aggressively on school desegregation issues. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
In a statement issued by the White House, President Obama called Height “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement and a hero to so many Americans.”
“Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality . . . witnessing every march and milestone along the way,” Obama said. “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.”
In the turmoil of the civil rights struggles in the 1960s, Ms. Height helped orchestrate strategy with movement leaders including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Whitney Young, James Farmer, Bayard Rustin and John Lewis, who later served as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia.
Height was arguably the most influential woman at the top levels of civil rights leadership, but she never drew the major media attention that conferred celebrity and instant recognition on some of the other civil rights leaders of her time.
In August 1963, Height was on the platform with King when he delivered his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. But she would say later that she was disappointed that no one advocating women’s rights spoke that day at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Less than a month later, at King’s request, she went to Birmingham, Ala., to minister to the families of four black girls who had died in a church bombing linked to the racial strife that had engulfed the city.