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Correction to This Article
The obituary of civil rights activist Dorothy I. Height said that much of her work to overcome gender bias predated the women's rights movement. That work did not predate the women's rights movement, which began in the 19th century; it predated the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Dorothy I. Height 1912 -- 2010

Dorothy I. Height, founding matriarch of U.S. civil rights movement, dies at 98

Dorothy I. Height's crusade for racial justice and gender equality spanned more than six decades. Ms. Height was among the coalition of African American leaders who pushed civil rights to the center of the American political stage in the years after World War II, and she was a key figure in the struggles for school desegregation, voting rights, employment and public accommodations.

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By Bart Barnes
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dorothy I. Height, 98, a founding matriarch of the American civil rights movement whose crusade for racial justice and gender equality spanned more than six decades, died Tuesday at Howard University Hospital. The cause of death was not disclosed.

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Ms. Height was among the coalition of African American leaders who pushed civil rights to the center of the American political stage after World War II, and she was a key figure in the struggles for school desegregation, voting rights, employment opportunities and public accommodations in the 1950s and 1960s.

As president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, Ms. Height was arguably the most influential woman at the top levels of civil rights leadership.

Although she never drew the media attention that conferred celebrity and instant recognition on some of the other civil rights leaders of her time, Ms. Height was often described as the "glue" that held the family of black civil rights leaders together. She did much of her work out of the public spotlight, in quiet meetings and conversations, and she was widely connected at the top levels of power and influence in government and business.

As a civil rights activist, Ms. Height participated in protests in Harlem during the 1930s. In the 1940s, she lobbied first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on behalf of civil rights causes. And in the 1950s, she prodded President Dwight D. Eisenhower to move more aggressively on school desegregation issues. In 1994, Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

In a statement issued by the White House, President Obama called Ms. Height "the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement and a hero to so many Americans."

She "devoted her life to those struggling for equality . . . witnessing every march and milestone along the way," Obama said.

In the turmoil of the civil rights struggles in the 1960s, Ms. Height helped orchestrate strategy with movement leaders including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph and John Lewis, who would later serve as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia.

In August 1963, Ms. Height was on the platform with King when he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. But she would say later that she was disappointed that no one advocating women's rights spoke that day at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Less than a month later, at King's request, she went to Birmingham, Ala., to minister to the families of four black girls who had died in a church bombing linked to the racial strife that had engulfed the city.

"At every major effort for social progressive change, Dorothy Height has been there," Lewis said in 1997 when Ms. Height announced her retirement as president of the National Council of Negro Women.

Women's rights champion

As a champion of social justice, Ms. Height was best known during the early years of her career for her struggles to overcome racial prejudice.

She was also energetic in her efforts to overcome gender bias, and much of that work predated the women's rights movement. When President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, Ms. Height was among those invited to the White House to witness the ceremony. She returned to the White House in 1998 for a ceremony marking the 35th anniversary of that legislation to hear Clinton urge passage of additional laws aimed at equalizing pay for men and women.


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