A Service Fit for a Queen

President Obama headlines the classy send-off for Dorothy Height, a civil rights pioneer.

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Jason Miccolo Johnson

President Barack Obama strode to the podium Thursday morning at Washington National Cathedral, 41 minutes into Dr. Dorothy Height's funeral. His presence alone indicated the 98-year-old's significance in American history, which she impacted for the better part of the 20th century as a civil rights and human rights pioneer.

Not that Wednesday's services at Howard University and Shiloh Baptist Church in the nation's capital lacked in conveying Height's vast contributions. Not that the outpouring of love and affection for Height was meant in any way to overshadow fellow civil rights pioneer Benjamin Hooks, who died April 15, five days before Height passed away. Not that the long list of politicians, cabinet members and celebrities who attended on Thursday, or spoke and performed on Wednesday, needed validation from Obama.

But this was POTUS himself, rising to deliver Height's eulogy as flags across the nation flew at half-staff, per his order. Folks had begun lining up at 4 a.m. for the 700 tickets available to the general public. The sanctuary had been filling steadily since 7 a.m. We had been captivated by the sounds of the Howard University Gospel Choir, as well as selections from BeBe Winans, Jeff Majors and Denyce Graves. Dr. Camille O. Cosby had shared her reflections, and Dr. Bernard C. Randolph Sr.--Height's nephew--had spoken on behalf of the family. Now it was Obama's turn, and he wasted no time in defining this occasion, a service honoring a life of service.

''The love in this sanctuary is a testament to a life lived righteously,'' he said, ''a life that lifted other lives; a life that changed this country for the better over the course of nearly one century here on earth.''

Obama acknowledged that he and Michelle didn't know Height as well, or as long, as many of the attendees. ''We were reminded during a previous moment in the service,'' he said. ''When you have a nephew who's 88, you've lived a full life,'' drawing laughter and applause from the congregation. But he said they came to know her in the early days of his campaign, and she became a familiar face. ''In the White House, she was a regular,'' he said. ''She came by not once, not twice ... 21 times she stopped by the White House. She took part in our discussions around health care reform in her final months.''

Former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman said Height used her final months to continue showing others how to battle, while also preparing her admirers for the impending transition. ''She taught us to keep fighting and never take yourself out of the game,'' Herman said. ''She had three curtain calls and rallied back each time. It occurs to me that she was preparing us for her final bow.'' It was a final bow that would have made her proud: a sanctuary abounding in big, colorful hats; pews filled with multi-racial, multi-generational attendees; a lineup of speakers who exhorted us to continue Height's legacy, her ''unambiguous record of righteous work'' as Obama put it.

There were plain, ol' regular folks, like LaAnthia Washington, of Prince George's County, Md., there, too. She said she was ''drawn to Dr. Height as a person and a good spirit,'' and grew up loving her like family. ''It was very important for me to be here for her,'' said Washington, wearing a short-brimmed black hat. ''And it cost me to come because I have no leave. But I called in and took off work.'' Height wouldn't mind if you skipped work for a funeral, but she had no use for slackers. Some in attendance wondered if her death would inspire others to step up their efforts.

''I hope the more that young people learn about her, they have the courage to pick up where she left off,'' Lewis said. ''But I don't think we'll see another one like her again. She was rare.'' Obama said one trait that made Height different was her humility, the way she worked quietly with no need for attention.

''She never cared who got the credit,'' Obama said. ''She didn't need to see her picture in the papers. She understood that the movement gathered strength from the bottom up, those unheralded men and women who don't always make it into the history books but who steadily insisted on their dignity, on their manhood and womanhood. She wasn't interested in credit. What she cared about was the cause. The cause of justice. The cause of equality. The cause of opportunity. Freedom's cause.''

It was a service honoring a life of service. A service fit for a queen.