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Appreciation: Civil rights matriarch fought racism with dignity

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; 11:30 AM

The first time I met Dorothy Height, she seemed out of place.

She was wearing an obviously expensive pantsuit, sporting a wide-brim church hat and zipping around the Mall on a golf cart.

It was 1986, the first year of the National Black Family Reunion that Height had boldly pushed for. Even though racial diversity was in full bloom, Height believed that African American families needed to celebrate themselves in a big way.

By then, Height was already a civil rights icon, revered as a national treasure. I was new to Washington. As a freelance broadcast journalist, I needed a sound bite to get paid. Height stood in front of my little microphone and gave much more.

Of course I knew her, had seen her on television, but as I listened to Height her passion for social justice was overwhelming. Since then, I have interviewed her dozens of times. She was always available and accessible to the ordinary, as well as the extraordinary. And she always seemed to say the right thing.

Height began her career with another civil rights leader, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and worked with presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama. She always mixed the social with the political, closing out the annual family reunion with a gospel concert and a traditional benediction.

More than a half-million people have attended the National Black Family Reunions since they began in 1986. Along the way, she reminded everyone that the event was not just about money. She forced vendors to keep the food prices low and kept the focus on health care and education.

In the summer of 1991, my wife and I attended the annual summer gathering with my mother-in-law and our new baby Aria. My wife, Taunya Harris, had never been to the reunion and wanted to see singer Jermaine Jackson. But it was Dorothy Height who stole the show. "I will never forget. Dr. Height came out on stage dressed in this blue outfit," she said.

Height knew how to bring people together. When comedian Bill Cosby offered a scorching critique of black America during the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education case, which declared separate schools for blacks and whites unconstitutional, many blacks were angry. But Height said that Cosby was right because "the promises of Brown have yet to be fulfilled."

Former secretary of labor Alexis Herman, who has been leading the day-to-day operations of the National Council of Negro Women, said when she thinks of Height's legacy, she thinks of one word: service.

"She has lived her whole life serving the people," Herman said. "Hers was a life of service and giving back.

"She not only expected us to keep going, she instructed us to keep going," she added. "She would ball that fist up and say that the National Council of Negro Women wasn't about one or two persons. She balled her fist to say that you can strike a mighty blow when you make a fist and work together."

Before coming to the NCNW, Height served as president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority from 1947 to 1956. E. Faye Williams, a lawyer and president of the National Congress of Black Women, said she met Height at a Delta convention when Williams was only 17.

"Dr. Height has been a mentor and a role model for so many of us who work in the service to our country," Williams said. "She leaves impossible shoes for us to fill. She was involved in organizational leadership when it was not always popular for women to be leaders."

In 1995, NCNW became the only historic black organization on Pennsylvania Avenue, in close proximity to the Capitol. A few years later, Oprah Winfrey paid off the mortgage. Before her death, Height said one of the proudest moments came when the organization hosted an inaugural viewing party for the first African American president.

"Having worked hard for civil rights and opportunities, I was excited," she said. "The fact that we won the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which eliminated legal segregation, made the country better not just for black people, but for white people, too."

Height fought racism with dignity. On Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009, the last black family reunion Height attended, she parked her wheelchair on the main stage as gospel artist CeCe Winans performed. My camera was rolling.

"We open with a prayer breakfast, we close with a gospel concert, because we know that with all we have been through we have not come this far alone," Height said. "We do not like to hear the black family always described as a problem. Our children were a problem, our men were a problem, our women were a problem. We know we have problems, but we are not a problem people!"

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