Mourning a 'Lioness' of Civil Rights

The late Dorothy Height walked with presidents and pushed down barriers to equal rights.

Dr. Dorothy Height (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

This article was updated at 12:39 p.m.

Dorothy I. Height, a commanding force in civil rights movement who stood on the platform with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his historic "I Have a Dream'' speech, died of natural causes at 3:41 a.m. at Howard University Hospital in Washington, DC. She was 98 years old.

"She led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, and served as the only woman at the highest level of the civil rights movement -- witnessing every march and milestone along the way," said President Barack Obama in a statement. "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."

Height knocked down barriers to achieve equal protections for black men and women, especially in her capacity as president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) between 1957 and 1998.  She also worked for the YWCA, counseled presidents, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson on critical social and civil rights issues, and walked in lockstep with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to usher in vital changes for women's rights.

In fact, it was with Roosevelt that Height caught the prescient eye of Mary McLeod Bethune, founder and president of the NCNW, in a moment that forever changed Height's life. Height, who was serving as director of the Harlem YWCA, apparently made a great impression on Bethune while escorting Roosevelt to the event.

"Mrs. Bethune invited Height to join NCNW in her quest for women's rights to full and equal employment, pay and education,'' the NCNW site says.

In her role at the NCNW, Height went on to make history. The native of Richmond, Va., who was a standout public school student, labored tirelessly to register voters and to end segregation. She helped pave the way for the rise of women like first lady Michelle Obama, Valerie Jarrett, assistant to the president for intergovernmental relations and public liaison, and Ursula M. Burns, the chief executive officer of Xerox and the first African-American woman to lead a S&P 100 company.

"Throughout her life, Dr. Height inspired countless women to become effective leaders," said her friend, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman, in a statement posted on the Howard Medical University Hospital Web site.

Height also fought for the freedoms of black men. But the freedom fighter, who had grown frail in her old age and became confined to a wheelchair, never thought she'd see the day when America would elect a black president, she said speaking at a Black History Month event this year at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago.

"She talked about the remarkable achievements that our nation has witnessed, especially with the election of the first African American president and how that was something she never thought she would live to see,'' Kiana Barrett, director of external affairs, recalled. "But even in the aftermath of such an unimaginable triumph, there is still so much work to be done. She encouraged young people to take up the mantle of leadership, turn against the vices of violence and really unite to help build a stronger America. It was such a touching exchange to see her interface with the young people and to see their reaction to her.''