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Washington honors memory of civil rights leader Dorothy Height

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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.

She considered it her duty to make her presence felt in the Oval Office, no matter who was sitting behind the desk: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush -- or Obama. "We came to know her in the early days of my campaign," Obama said of himself and Michelle. "And we came to love her."

But Obama added that his presidency, historic as it is, hardly gave Height a reason to relax. "In the White House," he said, "she was a regular. She came by my office not once, not twice, but 21 times!"

When Height died April 20 at the age of 98, she had outlived many on the wrong side of her cause. She told those at her bedside that she had plans for new ventures.

Many of her friends are gone now. Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young and Rosa Parks, gone. Martin Luther King Jr., gone. Thurgood Marshall, gone. Judge Constance Baker Motley and Fannie Lou Hamer, gone. Benjamin Hooks went just days ago, on April 15.

Camille Cosby talked at the service about Height's efforts on behalf of women's rights. "Her clear determination did not allow men to push her to the background like they had successfully done to many civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s," she said. "She was firm and assertive, without losing 'woman.' " Cosby related how she and her husband, comedian Bill Cosby, got such a lift from sending flowers to Height. It did not have to be a birthday or a celebration of any kind. It just made her and her husband feel good, she said. "I was told they made her smile," she said.

Former labor secretary Alexis Herman was a confidante of Height's and was often by her side during her weeks-long hospital stay before she died. "She loved her daily sweet potatoes," Herman said, her words held aloft by tears, "and she loved a good party. She was usually the last to leave." The Deltas howled.

Herman related that Height "had no less than three curtain calls" during her hospital stay. The rallies buoyed those around her, she said.

Then she let go.

"She was preparing us," Herman explained, "as she was preparing to take her final bow."

It was a day of great poets and Bible verses read aloud. Maya Angelou, standing tall even while in a wheelchair, read from Psalm 139: "How deep I find your thoughts, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand."

It was a life, many recalled, nearly a century in its endurance. "Take your rest. Take your rest," the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, dean of the cathedral, urged at ceremony's end, looking down upon Height's casket.

Those words were from James Weldon Johnson's "God's Trombone."

And they took the casket away.

"If you grew up in the civil rights movement, Dorothy raised you," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who was at the March on Washington, said after the service. "She was the only woman at the top. There were no other girls, no other women. There was only Dorothy."

In the sunshine afterward, talk of her name circled the air. Like feathers blown from one of her fine hats.


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