Washington honors memory of civil rights leader Dorothy Height

In addition to the politicians and celebrities attending the funeral at the National Cathedral, average citizens turned out to remember the woman who devoted her life to racial and gender equality and touched their lives.
By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

In the movement, there was Thurgood.

There was Martin.

There was Miss Dorothy.

She found as much majesty in a maid's handshake as that of a president's. She could have dined on caviar but preferred sweet potatoes. Dorothy Height may have had a regal bearing underneath those dramatic hats, but she was quite comfortable around common folk, listening to their travails and trying to soften the harsh winds of racial prejudice that bedeviled them.

Height, perhaps the most influential woman in the leadership of the civil rights movement, was remembered Thursday in a stirring 90-minute program at Washington National Cathedral that summoned the sometimes painful and majestic march toward equality for blacks and women in America.

"She lived to see the country change," said Olivia G. White, dean of students at Hood College in Frederick and one of the hundreds of members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority who filled the pews -- along with President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and others well known and unknown.

"She was raised in a different America, beyond the experience of many," President Obama said in his eulogy, looking out over pews filled with elderly men with canes, women in fine millinery and children holding on to the white-gloved hands of mothers. "Jim Crow ruled the South. The Ku Klux Klan was on the rise. Lynching was all too often the penalty of black skin. And slaves had been freed within living memory."

Her life of activism started as a social worker in Harlem. She later joined the staff of the YWCA in New York and then in Washington. Height led the National Council of Negro Women for more than 40 years, melding the cause of family health with the struggle for equality. Female prisoners used to write letters to "Miss Dorothy Height. Washington DC." The letters got to her desk. She was like Eleanor Roosevelt, only she came not from privilege but from black America.

She was ageless, and she never married. She was every black man or woman's godmother.

Miss Dorothy.

Height's years of labor earned her a spot on the podium at the 1963 March on Washington. From that vantage point, the mighty step forward could be seen. The laws of segregation began to fall away; the voting rolls of blacks in the South began to fill. Progress became visible. "The kind of progress that made it possible for me and Michelle to be here as president of the United States and first lady," President Obama said.

There were those in the audience who raised their arms, palms out. Testifying. They could see the road from Miss Dorothy to President Obama.

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