WASHINGTON — Dorothy Irene Height, a pioneering voice of the civil rights movement whose activism stretched from the New Deal to the election of President Barack Obama, died Tuesday (April 20, 2010). She was 98.
Ms. Height, who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, was known for her determination and grace — as well as her wry humor. She remained active and outspoken well into her 90s and often received rousing ovations at events around Washington, where she was easily recognizable in the bright, colorful hats she almost always wore.
She died at Howard University Hospital, where she had been in serious condition for weeks.
In a statement, Obama called her "the godmother of the civil rights movement" and a hero to Americans. "Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality … and served as the only woman at the highest level of the civil rights movement — witnessing every march and milestone along the way."
Ms. Height received two of the nation's highest honors: the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
She was born in Richmond, Va., before women could vote and when blacks had few rights. Her family moved to the Pittsburgh area when she was 4. Distinguishing herself in the classroom, she was accepted to Barnard College, then turned away because the school had reached its quota of two black women. She went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees from New York University.
As a teenager, she marched in New York's Times Square, shouting, "Stop the lynching." After earning her degrees, she became a leader of the Harlem YWCA and the United Christian Youth Movement of North America, where she pushed to prevent lynching, desegregate the armed forces and reform the criminal justice system.
She traveled to Holland and England as a U.S. delegate to youth and church conferences, and in 1938 was one of 10 young people chosen by Eleanor Roosevelt to spend a weekend at the first lady's Hyde Park, N.Y., home preparing for a World Youth Conference at Vassar College.
Ms. Height was on the platform at the Lincoln Memorial, sitting only a few feet from King, when he gave his famous "I have a dream" speech at the March on Washington in 1963.
When Obama won the presidential election in November 2008, she told Washington TV station WTTG that she was overwhelmed with emotion. "People ask me, did I ever dream it would happen, and I said, 'If you didn't have the dream, you couldn't have worked on it,' " she said.
Ms. Height dedicated most of her adult life to the National Council of Negro Women, where she first worked under her mentor and group founder, Mary McLeod Bethune. Ms. Height took over in 1957 and led it until 1997, fighting for issues such as equal pay and education.
She developed programs such as "pig banks" to help poor rural families raise their own livestock, and "Wednesdays in Mississippi," in which black and white women from the north traveled to Mississippi in an effort to ease racial tensions and bridge differences.