Hundreds pay respects to civil rights leader Height

By Hamil R. Harris and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post staff writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010; B01

Former president Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other political titans shared their joyful memories of Dorothy Irene Height on Wednesday night at Shiloh Baptist Church, offering a send-off fit for a civil rights icon renowned both for her substance and her style.

"She was out there ahead of her time; that's what made her beautiful," Bill Clinton said of the longtime leader of the National Council of Negro Women, who died April 20 at 98. "If ever anyone earned her way, Dorothy Height did."

The "celebration of life" at the sanctuary in Northwest Washington was packed with at least 1,300 people, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Bill Cosby and actress Cicely Tyson. Many women wore their finest hats, Height's signature sartorial statement.

"She was elegant, but she had no airs. She was passionate but never overheated," Hillary Clinton said. "She understood that women's rights and civil rights are indivisible. She stood up for the rights of women every chance she had."

Clinton, wearing a black wide-brim hat with a white silk ribbon, said she had "never given a speech in a hat."

A funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at Washington National Cathedral.

The service Wednesday night, at which Stevie Wonder sang "I'll Be Loving You Always" in tribute to Height, was one of several events commemorating her. Earlier Wednesday, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and other political figures went to the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women to pay respects to Height, who directed the organization for 40 years.

At the church service, the Rev. Al Sharpton recalled that Height spent her early adult years as an activist in New York City.

"The years of activism we came to know began in Harlem," Sharpton said. "She planted the seeds of a movement that changed America."

Bernice King, the youngest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., brought many in the crowd to their feet with a stirring speech that challenged them to carry on the legacy of the civil rights movement.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said: "Dorothy Height will always be remembered as a woman of grace, elegance and modesty."

Earlier Wednesday, the Deltas strode up the brick sidewalks of Georgia Avenue, their black dresses flowing in the chilly breeze, their jeweled sorority pins sparkling in the sunshine.

Through the brick entrance pillars to Howard University they walked, wearing their traditional corsages of violets entwined with the red and white ribbons of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and clutching the Delta "ritual" books they had received as pledges, in some cases decades ago.

They came from near and far, by bus, car and cab, to bid farewell to Height, their "dear sister." The Deltas came for the Omega Omega ceremony -- "the end, the end," as one member put it -- a candlelight farewell service due every sister who dies.

They also came to celebrate the bonds and traditions that have linked so many of them across the country since the sorority was founded at Howard in 1913.

The service was held at 2 p.m. in a gym in Howard's John Burr physical education building. The room was packed with mourners and draped in the sorority's colors. Height's coffin, bedecked in red flowers, sat at the foot of a large table covered with a white cloth bearing in red the Greek letters Delta Sigma Theta. Height was eulogized by sisters wearing white gowns trimmed in red.

As members gathered outside on the sunny but chilly day, there was an air of pride in their mission and in the departed woman who had once been their leader. Height was the sorority's 10th national president, serving from 1947 to 1956. She had been a Delta since 1939.

The arriving women waved, hugged and kissed, asking each other: "How are you, dear? You okay?"

Height "did a lot to help develop young women," said Elizabeth Reynolds, 79, "and to help make a better life for us so they'll be able to have good families and encourage our children to go forward, get educated and be in a position to perpetuate good living for family life."

"Dr. Height is responsible for a great deal of this," Reynolds said of the sorority's spirit. "She taught us that we should help each other."

Deborah Dade, who pledged at Morgan State University in 1968, had her Delta ritual book in a protective plastic bag. The book contains many of the sorority's traditions, including the Delta prayer, which is sung at the Omega Omega service. The second verse begins: "When daylight dies, and o'er us calm is hovering, come to us then and whisper words of peace."

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