Civil Rights Leader Dorothy Height Dies at Age 98

Dorothy Height spent her life fighting for the rights of African Americans and women

Portrait of Dr. Dorothy Height taken in June 2008
Portrait of Dr. Dorothy Height taken in June 2008 Adrian Hood via Wikimedia Common

One of the most striking memories of the civil rights movements is when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver his famous 1963 address, "I Have A Dream." Civil rights activist Dorothy Height sat just feet away from him, but unlike the movement's more visible (and often male) leaders, Height had escaped much of the media spotlight.

As one of King's trusted allies and confidants, she worked alongside him to promote civil rights and equality, attending rallies and; using her training as a social worker, she reached out to families who were dealing with discrimination. But her journey didn't start with that march on Washington. Since the early 1930s, Height had been fighting for the rights of both African Americans and women, a fight she continued until recently in a decades-long career that included work with the Harlem YMCA; former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt; King; and as president of the National Council of Negro Women.

Height died early this morning at age 98, the Washington Post reported, quoting President Obama as he called Height "the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement."

"I’m extremely saddened by the passage of Dorothy Height," said Lonnie Bunch, the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History, "because in some ways, for my entire life she has been a rock of the civil rights movement, she has been that person – with that wonderful hat – who has always said, “We will come together as a people, as a group.”  She handled all the splinters and schisms within the different parts of the civil rights movement.   But what she did, maybe even more than anything else, is she made us realize that you can’t separate out gender from issues of civil rights.  So here is a woman whose life was created to make America better, and in some ways, part of what is my sadness is that we no longer have that rock that we can count on.  But for me, Dorothy Height really symbolized that generation that believed that change was possible, when there was really no evidence that change would come.  And they single-handedly changed America.”

In 1989, artist Simmie Knox depicted Height in a portrait commissioned by the National Council of Negro Women. Today, the work resides within the collections of the National Portrait Gallery. This week, a Smithsonian traveling exhibit, "Freedom's Sisters," which honors Height among other African American women, opens at the Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future in Dallas, Texas. The exhibit features 20 women (including Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King and Harriet Tubman) who "shaped much of the spirit and substance of civil rights in America," offering histories and multimedia interaction in an effort to better teach visitors about women's contribution to the movement.

Height began her civil rights career as a student at New York University, when she became a leader in the United Christian Youth Movement of North America, working to help stop lynching and desegregate the military and public places. Shortly afterward, she worked with the movement in the aftermath of the 1935 Harlem Riots. She also urged first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to focus on civil rights issues, and was one of ten American youth invited to Roosevelt's Hyde Park, New York, home to plan the World Youth Conference, which was held at Vassar College.

After working with King, and seeing the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Height organized groups of women of different races and religions in an effort called "Wednesdays In Mississippi," which aimed to help freedom in schools and open communication between women. She also founded the Women's Center for Education and Career Advancement in New York City to offer assistance and training  for entry level jobs, and traveled the country and the world advocating and promoting women's rights. In the 1980s and 90s, she organized several programs to help families remember the "historic strengths and traditional values" of the African American family.

She later earned several awards, including the Citizens Medal from President Ronald Reagan; induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame; the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton; and the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award presented by congress, from President George W. Bush on her 92nd birthday in 2004.

Note: This post was updated on April 21 to include the remarks of Lonnie Bunch. His comments on Dorothy Height were made at the April 20 press preview for the upcoming show, "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment," organized by the National Museum of African American History and on view beginning April 23 at the National Museum of American History.

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