The New York Times
Dorothy Height, Largely Unsung Giant of the Civil Rights Era, Dies at 98
BY Margalit Fox
Dorothy Height, a leader of the African-American and women's rights movements who was considered both the grande dame of the civil rights era and its unsung heroine, died on Tuesday in Washington. She was 98.
The death, at Howard University Hospital, was announced jointly by the hospital and the National Council of Negro Women, which Ms. Height had led for four decades. A longtime Washington resident, Ms. Height was the council's president emerita at her death.
One of the last living links to the social activism of the New Deal era, Ms. Height had a career in civil rights that spanned nearly 80 years, from anti-lynching protests in the early 1930s to the inauguration of President Obama in 2009. That the American social landscape looks as it does today owes in no small part to her work.
Originally trained as a social worker, Ms. Height was president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1997, overseeing a range of programs on issues like voting rights, poverty and in later years AIDS. A longtime executive of the Y.W.C.A., she presided over the integration of its facilities nationwide in the 1940s.
With Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan and others, she helped found the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971. Over the decades, she advised a string of American presidents on civil rights.
If Ms. Height was less well known than her contemporaries in either the civil rights or women's movement, it was perhaps because she was doubly marginalized, pushed offstage by women's groups because of her race and by black groups because of her sex. Throughout her career, she responded quietly but firmly, working with a characteristic mix of limitless energy and steely gentility to ally the two movements in the fight for social justice.
As a result, Ms. Height is widely credited as the first person in the modern civil rights era to treat the problems of equality for women and equality for African-Americans as a seamless whole, merging concerns that had been largely historically separate.
The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and other prestigious awards, Ms. Height was accorded a place of honor on the dais on Jan. 20, 2009, when Mr. Obama took the oath of office as the nation's 44th president. In a statement on Tuesday, he called Ms. Height "the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans."
Over the years, historians have made much of the so-called "Big Six" who led the civil rights movement: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney M. Young Jr. Ms. Height, the only woman to work regularly alongside them on projects of national significance, was very much the unheralded seventh, the leader who was cropped out, figuratively and often literally, of images of the era.
In 1963, for instance, Ms. Height sat on the platform an arm's length from Dr. King as he delivered his epochal "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington. She was one of the march's chief organizers and a prize-winning orator herself. Yet she was not asked to speak, although many other black leaders -- all men -- addressed the crowd that day.
Ms. Height recounted the incident in her memoir, "Open Wide the Freedom Gates" (PublicAffairs, 2003; with a foreword by Maya Angelou). Reviewing the memoir, The New York Times Book Review called it "a poignant short course in a century of African-American history."
Dorothy Irene Height was born on March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Va. Her father, James, was a building contractor; her mother, the former Fannie Burroughs, was a nurse. A severe asthmatic as a child, Dorothy was not expected to live, she later wrote, past the age of 16.
When Dorothy was small, the family moved north to Rankin, Pa., near Pittsburgh, where she attended integrated public schools. She began her civil rights work as a teenager, volunteering on voting rights and anti-lynching campaigns.
In high school, Ms. Height entered an oratory contest, sponsored by the Elks, on the subject of the United States Constitution. An eloquent speaker even in her youth, she soon advanced to the national finals, where she was the only black contestant. She delivered a talk on the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments -- the Reconstruction Amendments --intended to extend constitutional protections to former slaves and their descendants. The jury, all white, awarded her first prize: a four-year college scholarship.
As Ms. Height told The Detroit Free Press in 2008, "I'm still working today to make the promise of the 14th Amendment of equal justice under law a reality."
A star student, the young Ms. Height applied to Barnard College and was accepted. Then, in the summer of 1929, shortly before classes began, she was summoned to New York by a Barnard dean.
There was a problem, the dean said. That Ms. Height had been admitted to Barnard was certain. But she could not enroll -- not then, anyway. Barnard had already met its quota for Negro students that year.
Too distraught to call home, as she later wrote, Ms. Height did the only thing possible. Clutching her Barnard acceptance letter, she took the subway downtown to New York University. She was admitted at once, earning a bachelor's degree in education there in 1933 and a master's in psychology two years later.
Ms. Height was a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department before becoming the assistant executive director of the Harlem Y.W.C.A. in the late 1930s. One of her first public acts at the Y was to call attention to the exploitation of black women working as domestic day laborers. The women, who congregated on street corners in Brooklyn and the Bronx known locally as "slave markets," were picked up and hired, for about 15 cents an hour, by white suburban housewives who cruised the corners in their cars.
Ms. Height's testimony before the New York City Council about the "slave markets" attracted the attention of the national and international news media. For a time, the publicity was enough to drive the markets underground, though they later re-emerged.
In 1946, as a member of the Y's national leadership, Ms. Height oversaw the desegregation of its facilities nationwide. In 1965, she founded the Y's Center for Racial Justice, which she led until 1977.
While working for the Y in the late '30s, Ms. Height was chosen to escort the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, to a meeting of the National Council of Negro Women. There, Ms. Height caught the eye of Mary McLeod Bethune, the council's founder, who became her mentor.
As the council's president during the most urgent years of the civil rights movement, Ms. Height instituted a variety of social programs in the Deep South, including the pig bank, in which poor black families were given a pig, a prize commodity. In the mid-'60s, she helped institute "Wednesdays in Mississippi," a program that flew interracial teams of Northern women to the state to meet with black and white women there.
Ms. Height, who long maintained that strong communities were at the heart of social welfare, inaugurated a series of "Black Family Reunions" in the mid-1980s. Sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women and held in cities across the United States, the reunions were large, celebratory gatherings devoted to the history, culture and traditions of African-Americans. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the first one, in Washington in 1986.
From 1947 to 1956, Ms. Height was also the president of Delta Sigma Theta, an international sorority of black women.
Besides the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Bill Clinton in 1994, Ms. Height's many honors include the Congressional Gold Medal, awarded by President George W. Bush in 2004. The two medals are the country's highest civilian awards.
Ms. Height, who never married, is survived by a sister, Anthanette Aldridge, of New York City.
If despite her laurels Ms. Height remained in the shadow of her male contemporaries, she rarely objected. After all, as she often said in interviews, the task at hand was far less about personal limelight than it was about collective struggle.
"I was there, and I felt at home in the group," she told The Sacramento Bee in 2003 "But I didn't feel I should elbow myself to the front when the press focused on the male leaders."
Ms. Height received three dozen honorary doctorates, from institutions including Tuskegee, Harvard and Princeton Universities. But there was one academic honor -- the equivalent of a bachelor's degree -- that resonated more strongly than all the rest: In 2004, 75 years after turning her away, Barnard College designated Ms. Height an honorary graduate.
Photo: Height presenting the Mary McLeod Bethune Human Rights Award to Eleanor Roosevelt in New York in 1960 (United Press International).