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Washington honors memory of civil rights leader Dorothy Height

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010; A01

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.

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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