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Tributes begin for civil rights leader Dorothy Height

By Hamil R. Harris
Wednesday, April 28, 2010; B02

In life, Dorothy Irene Height, a founding matriarch of the civil rights movement, thought it important that the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women be on Pennsylvania Avenue. The organization that fought to improve the rights of women of color would be the only historic black organization in proximity to the Capitol and the White House.

And so it was that Tuesday evening, Height, who died last week at 98, returned to the building and the organization for which she worked so hard.

A royal blue hearse pulled up to the building about 4:30 p.m. Inside was the cherry wood casket carrying her remains. Surrounding Height's casket were board members, all dressed in white, and NCNW members from across the country, dressed in black.

Many were wearing hats in remembrance of Height, who was seldom seen without a stylish hat perched upon her head.

"This is where she gave her life and her dream," said Barbara Shaw, interim board chairwoman of the NCNW. "This building, sitting on this corner, is the only building owned by blacks between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, and we are bringing her back home."

A private service was held for Height's family and NCNW board members. Doors opened to the public at 6 p.m., and thousands of people waited in a serpentine line that stretched all the way down the block to pay their respects.

"I wanted to be here, because she was a foot soldier for the civil servants in the city," said Charlene Brooks of Arlington County. "I made it my business to be here."

Former D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly waited more than an hour to file past Height's casket.

"She was such an exemplar of grace, dignity, perseverance," Kelly said. "After all, she was about the only woman who was there with the leadership of the civil rights movement when they gathered" for the March on Washington in 1963.

Tuesday's remembrance of Height was the first of several being held to honor the woman who helped push civil rights into the national spotlight.

On Wednesday, another viewing will be held from 9 a.m. to noon at NCNW headquarters for members of Congress and other invited guests. Height's body will then be moved to Howard University's Burr Gymnasium, where members of Delta Sigma Theta sorority will pay tribute to their former president.

Later Wednesday, former president Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and former National Organization for Women president Eleanor Smeal will be among throngs of people expected to attend a "Celebration of Life" for Height at Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Washington.

And on Thursday, a funeral for Height will be held at Washington National Cathedral. President Obama is expected to deliver the eulogy, and a who's who is expected to attend or participate in the services, including poet and author Maya Angelou, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and Oprah Winfrey.

The Rev. Lewis Anthony, director of ecumenical affairs for Metropolitan Wesley AME Zion Church in Northwest Washington, said the tributes show the impact Height had on so many.

""There were many civil rights leaders, but Dr. Height put in place the means to train a new generation," Anthony said.

Height's call to action for equality was not directed solely at black women, said Tonya Lombard, who served as a special assistant to President Clinton during his campaign. Her call was to all.

"She has laid the foundation for our generation to have a steady platform to move the mission forward on behalf of all Americans," Lombard said.

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