WASHINGTON — Civil rights pioneer Dorothy Height, the president of the National Council of Negro Women for more than 40 years and a pivotal figure during the civil rights era of the 1960s, died Tuesday at the age of 98. She continued actively speaking out but had been at Howard University Hospital for some time. The hospital said in a statement she died of natural causes.
Height was “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement and a hero to so many Americans,” President Obama said in a statement.
In awarding Height the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004, President Bush called her a “giant of the civil rights movement” who had been an informal adviser to presidents and first ladies for more than 50 years.
“She’s a friend of first ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Rodham Clinton,” Bush said. “She’s known every president since Dwight David Eisenhower. She’s told every president what she thinks since Dwight David Eisenhower.”
NAACP Chairwoman Roslyn Brock heralded Height as the “matriarch” of the civil rights movement.
“The nation has lost a stalwart champion for civil rights and gender equality,” Brock said in a statement. “With perseverance and strong determination, Dr. Height broke through the proverbial glass ceiling as the only woman (among the ‘Big Six’ organizers of the March on Washington) to secure civil rights legislation in the 1950s and ’60s.”
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was one of those organizers of the March on Washington, praised Height as ” … a feminist, and long before there was a women’s movement,” and as ” … a great American, a brave and courageous woman who worked tirelessly for the cause of civil rights and social justice.”
Lewis said Height’s work in the South in Mississippi helped educate the rest of America on strained conditions in the region.
“She helped build bridges and form relationships that sensitized women in the North to the problems in the South,” Lewis said in a statement.
NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said he first met Height at the 25th anniversary observance of the March on Washington, in 1993, and had the opportunity to work with her in recent months.
“Despite being in poor health, she joined the NAACP late last year in our health care war room to advocate for health care (change),” Jealous said. “Dr. Height was a tireless and committed fighter for civil rights.”
Officials acknowledged the balance Height maintained between determination against injustice and a sense of personal style.
“Dr. Height was an icon of unswerving compassion, awesome intellect, rapier wit and dashing style,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement. “Not only was she a private counselor to U.S. presidents and lawmakers, but she was also a personal mentor to so many who followed her lead in fighting for equal rights.”
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., referred to Height as ” … a mighty woman, noble, fierce and loving, and today she’s reached the mountaintop. She was the first lady of the long struggle for equality for African Americans and women.”
Said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic advocacy organization, “She broke down barriers for so many of us to follow — with her signature grit and consummate grace — and for that, we will always be deeply grateful.”
Height’s other honors include receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Reagan in 1989 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton in 1994. She always maintained that her principal achievement was raising the profile of black women while helping ensure that women of all races enjoyed full opportunity.
“Black women are the backbone of every institution,” Height often said.
Born in Richmond, Va., and raised in the mill town of Rankin, Pa., Height won a scholarship to New York University for her oratory skills. She had been accepted at Barnard College but turned down for admittance, she wrote in her memoir, attributing the rejection to a racial quota system.
Height started her career as a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department. At 25, Height began decades of work with the National Young Women’s Christian Association, during which she pushed the organization to lead efforts to provide equal opportunity and access for women of all races and cultures.
When Height began her work with the organization, most cities had separate YWCAs for whites and blacks. In 1946, Height led the group to adopt a charter calling for full integration.
In 1937, National Council of Negro Women founder Mary McLeod Bethune noticed Height, then the assistant director of the Harlem YWCA in New York City, when she escorted first lady Eleanor Roosevelt into a NCNW meeting.
Bethune urged Height to join her in the fledgling organization, beginning decades of work with the two groups in which Height became one of the nation’s most influential civil rights activists.
Height became president of the NCNW in 1957 and began to work closely with the leadership of the burgeoning civil rights movement. She became known as one of the so-called “Big Six,” joining Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Lewis and James Farmer at the forefront of the struggle.
But Height, who never married, was often overshadowed by her male counterparts in the movement. She wrote in her 2003 memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates, that she was consistently cropped out of photographs of meetings between civil rights leaders and presidents.
“But I knew I was there,” she wrote.
Julian Bond, NAACP chairman emeritus, heralded Height as someone who was unstoppable. “Dr. Height never saw a mountain she could not overcome, from being denied entry to Barnard College to achieving a master’s degree in psychology at NYU and lobbying President Kennedy to sign the Equal Pay Act in 1963,” Bond said in a statement.
Behind the scenes, Height’s influence was significant. King sent her to Birmingham to help black families respond to the deaths of four little girls in a 1963 church bombing.
She was part of the planning committee for the legendary 1963 March on Washington and was among those who insisted that King speak last so his words would be remembered.
Height wrote that while some planners wanted a female speaker, “the women finally decided that our overall objective was too great, and we didn’t want to detract from that. So we accepted that the only female voice would be that of Mahalia Jackson, who sang the national anthem.”
In his statement, Obama noted that a college once denied entry to Height because it had already met its quota of two African-American women. “Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality,” the president said, and witnessed “every march and milestone along the way.”
Known for her quiet manner and stylish dress — particularly her trademark hats — Height often surpassed her male peers with her access and influence with policymakers. She remained the chairperson of the NCNW’s executive board until her death.
In her later years, Height helped create the Black Family Reunion movement as a way of promoting a national celebration of black kinship.
In her book, Height wrote that a phrase she heard Bethune use more than 50 years earlier had become a mantra for life: “The freedom gates are half ajar. We must pry them fully open.”
Wrote Height: “I have been committed to the calling ever since.”