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.''


Those who knew her said her death would leave a gaping hole in the narrowing community of living civil rights leaders. Across the nation, elected officials, scholars, civil rights leaders and everyday people mourned Height's death.

"My sister Dr. Dorothy Height, along with the sister soldiers of SNCC and Daisy Dates of Little Rock and Fannie Lou Hamer of the cotton fields, extended the long black line from Harriet Tubman to Ida B. Wells to Mary Mcleod Bethune, pointing the way to the president's porch and preachers of the future,'' Mr. Bennett told The Root. "She always was so charming and so focused. She always reminded me of the best of the African-American tradition and the best of the American tradition.''


She chronicled her travails in her memoir, Open Wide The Freedom Gates, published in 2003 by PublicAffairs. She presented a somewhat dispassionate narrative of her time as a member of the national staff of the YWCA from 1944-1977 and president of the NCNW. She also wrote about her travels around the globe in her fight for civil rights, including trips to England, Haiti and India, where she taught.

"I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom,'' Height once said, according to About.com. "I want to be remembered as one who tried."


To be sure, Height more than tried. Besides the NCNW, she counseled Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, on critical social and civil rights issues. For her work, she was the recipient of the 2004 Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian award given to individuals who perform outstanding deeds or acts for the United States.

Height accomplished her goals by standing guard against injustices like a lioness, whose quiet, yet powerful manner bespoke power, said Clarence B. Jones, the former personal counsel of slain civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jones met her through his work with Dr. King at that time.


Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia echoed the same sentiments. She entered a statement into the Congressional Record on March 24 to celebrate Dr. Height's 98th birthday.

"Dr. Dorothy L. Height has spent her extremely productive lifetime in service of African Americans, especially African-American women, and the people of the United States of America,'' Rep. Norton's statement said. "She has been a visionary, championing every great effort for equality and racial justice that our nation has achieved, from equal pay and voting rights for women to the integration of the nation's governmental institutions and revision of societal norms.''


Norton went on to describe Dr. Height as the "godmother of the civil rights movement." Dr. Height organized the annual Black Family Reunion, a national celebration that she leads to celebrate African-American family values on the National Mall and throughout the nation.

"One by one the white patrons left the restaurant and were replaced by uniformed white men who closed in on Height and her friends as they waited for dinner,'' White wrote. "As Height's mind raced to find a way out, one of her companions moved nervously toward a phone to call for help. Suddenly, Height noticed that the restaurant was slowly filling with black kitchen help who pretended to be cleaning tables, while keeping watchful eyes on them.''


Height was best known as Dr. Height because she was the recipient of 36 honorary doctorate degrees from universities and colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, Howard and New York University, where she obtained her bachelor's and master's degrees in 1933. She was accepted to Barnard College in 1929, but was turned away when she showed up because the school had met its quota of black students. Seventy-five years later the school tried to correct the wrong by embracing Height as an "honorary alumna."

"This is really an honor," said Height, who was 92 at the time, as she accepted the recognition. "This is not about my life's work. It is about me, and I appreciate it very much. To be here tonight in this roomful of women of color, to feel the spirit of love and healing, makes me feel that my life has come full circle. Something that could have hurt forever has been removed."


That kind of graciousness was just her way. Height did not get bogged down in bitterness, despite the obstacles she had faced. "I found my life's work," Height told a large audience gathered at a book signing at the Library of Congress in February 2004.  "I have been in the proximity of, and threatened by, the Klan; I have been called everything people of color are called; I have been denied admission because of a quota. I've had all of that, but I've also learned that getting bitter is not the way."

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the reprint year for Open Wide The Freedom Gates (2005) as the publication date.


Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter