"A Hero To So Many Americans": Remembering Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height, a lifelong advocate for racial and gender equality, died today at the age of 98 — and sadly, she's one of many civil rights leaders we've lost in recent days.

Bart Barnes remembers Height in a long and detailed obit in the Washington Post, and her life was both impressive and varied. She started out as a welfare caseworker in Harlem, and later said, "I was one of the multitude whose first experience as a civil rights activist was in walking and talking with merchants on 125th Street." From there she moved to the YWCA, where she helped integrate facilities, and then to the National Council of Negro Women, where she was president for 40 years. She worked tirelessly on voter registration drives and development projects in the US and Africa, and fought for women's equality before there was a broad-based movement to do so. She once said, "If the times aren't ripe, you have to ripen the times."

Height was on the platform with Martin Luther King when he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Activist C. DeLores Tucker said, "I call Rosa Parks the mother of the civil rights movement. Dorothy Height is the queen." Barack Obama, in a statement earlier this morning, called Height "the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement and a hero to so many Americans." She was also an advocate of dressing to impress — she said, "I came up at a time when young women wore hats, and they wore gloves. Too many people in my generation fought for the right for us to be dressed up and not put down." In the MSNBC interview below, she shows off both her political mettle and her style.

Sadly, Height is not the only civil rights leader who passed away recently. Benjamin Hooks, who led the NAACP and fought to improve educational and job opportunities for black Americans, died last week. So did Dr. Claude Wyatt, a friend of Martin Luther King's who worked with the homeless in Chicago and supported the career of Barack Obama. So did another Chicago activist, Richard Kelly, who was a teacher, a community organizer, and a protester in the Freedom Summer of 1964. And just yesterday saw the passing of Katie McWatt, who fought against housing discrimination and gang violence in St. Paul. Much was made last year of a cluster of celebrity deaths, but these activists deserve as much fanfare as any Oscar winner. And in an era when many civil rights leaders from the sixties are passing away, yet many battles remain to be fought, Height's advice to "ripen the times" continues to resonate.

Dorothy I. Height, Founding Matriarch Of Civil Rights Movement, Dies At 98 [Washington Post]
Civil Rights Pioneer Wyatt Dies At 88 [ABC]
Civil Rights, Political Activist Richard J. Kelly Dies At 71 [Chicago Tribune]
Benjamin L. Hooks, Civil Rights Leader, Dies At 85 [NYT]
Katie McWatt, 79: She Waged A Fight For Justice [Pioneer Press]
From The Archives: Dorothy Height [MSNBC]
Dorothy Height, Civil Rights Activist, Dies At 98 [AP, via Traverse City Record-Eagle]
Statement: Obama On The Passing Of Dr. Dorothy Height, April 20, 2010 [Time: The Page Blog]