Civil Rights Legend Dorothy Height Dies at 98

Champion of rights for minorities and women, Height was 98.

ByABC News
April 20, 2010, 2:46 PM

April 20, 2010— -- Dorothy Height, an African-American administrator, educator, and key civil rights activist, has passed away at the age of 98. She spent her life crusading for the causes in which she believed – equal rights for all and social justice.

She died of natural causes this morning at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Height was the female team leader in the civil rights leadership, along with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins and James Lewis. Height was on the platform in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, when Dr. King delivered his powerful "I Have a Dream" speech.

"Today we have lost a great American, a brave and courageous woman who worked tirelessly for the cause of civil rights and social justice," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. "Long before some of the younger activists in the movement came to the forefront, like Dr. King and I, she was out there educating and empowering women, children and families in the South."

Height was born in Richmond, Va., on March 24, 1912, and raised in Rankin, Penna. In 1929 she was admitted to Barnard College in New York, but was not allowed to take classes because the school had already filled the two seats it allocated to black women at the time.

Instead, she attended New York University, earning a degree in 1932, and then a master's degree in educational psychology the following year. She has since been awarded 36 honorary degrees and the highest honor bestowed by Barnard College, the Barnard Medal of Distinction.

"Ever since she was denied entrance to college because the incoming class had already met its quota of two African American women, Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality," President Obama said in a statement today. He said he and Michelle were "deeply saddened" to hear of her death.

In 1938, while working as an assistant director for the YWCA in Harlem, she was assigned to help First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt plan a youth conference along with Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women. After speaking with Bethune, she was invited to join the NCNW. She later headed the organization, from 1957 to 1998.

Height led the NCNW as it helped women fight hunger and win the right to own their own homes. She led voter registration drives and established "Wednesdays in Mississippi," on which interracial groups of women would help at so-called Freedom Schools.

In 1986 she established the Black Family Reunion Celebrations to reinforce the historic strengths and traditional values of African-American families. The events continue annually today.

"Dr. Height was among those invited to the White House to witness President John F. Kennedy sign the Equal Pay Act into law in 1963," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., today. "Four decades later, her influence was felt when Congress enacted the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Our nation is richer, better and more inclusive because of her life's work."

She took her fight for equality abroad, initiating the sole African-American private voluntary organization working in Africa in 1975.

"Throughout her life, Dr. Height inspired countless women to become effective leaders," said her friend and personal confidante Alexis Herman, the Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration.

Oprah Winfrey joined in today's tributes: "We're all walking on the roads she paved. My generation and generations to come will be forever grateful for the profound opportunities and amazing possibilities created by her work for civil and women's rights."