Accessibility links

Breaking News

US Civil Rights Activist Dorothy Height Dies

In this March 14, 2008 file photo, Dorothy Irene Height, who served as President of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years until 1997, sits in front of her featured story board inside the "Freedom's Sisters" exhibition at the Cincinnati Museum C

U.S. civil rights icon Dorothy Height has died in a Washington, D.C. hospital. She was 98.

Height served for 40 years as president of the National Council of Negro Women, taking over the post in 1957 from legendary African-American educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Height stayed until her retirement four decades later.

In a statement Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama said he was deeply saddened at Height's passing, and called her "the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement and a hero to so many Americans."

Under her leadership, Height's organization was at the forefront of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. She worked closely with such civil rights leaders as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and was on the stage when King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Height also was a strong advocate for women's rights during her career.

She began as a teacher and community activist in the 1930s in New York City's Harlem community. She met Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the late 1930s while working as a social worker at the Harlem Young Women's Christian Association.

Early years

Height said she felt it was her mission to help people from the time she was a child in Rankin, Pennsylvania.

An avid learner and gifted student, Height entered a national oratory contest for a four-year scholarship to Barnard College in New York City. Speaking on the subject of the U.S. Constitution, she won the contest and packed her bags for New York.

Her arrival at the school marked the first of many instances in which Height says she would experience the sting of overt racism.

"I was accepted at Barnard College and was denied admission when I arrived because they had a quota of two [Negroes]. And they did not know that I was not white. And so, when I got there, I was turned away," says Height. "Nobody can tell me that affirmative action is quotas - I know what a quota is."

Before the day was done, Height had applied and was accepted to New York University, where she would earn her bachelor and masters degrees in four years.

Commitment to social change

Fueled by her commitment to social change, Dorothy Height worked alongside Mary McCloud Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women - from whom she would ultimately inherit the top position. She also served as an advisor on women's issues to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

She met Dr. Martin Luther King when he was a 15-year-old student still undecided about his career. Ten years later, she said, 'he became my leader' and she worked beside King throughout the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Dorothy Height said the end of segregation in the United States was the greatest change she witnessed in her years as a civil rights advocate. But, she added, that did not end the fight for equality. She said economic empowerment was the next big challenge in the struggle.


Known as Dr. Height for her dozens of honorary degrees, she also received the country's top honor for a lifetime of public service: the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.

In 2004, Height was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for her role as a leading advocate for racial and gender equality.

Height published her memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates, in 2003.

And, 75 years after turning her away, Barnard College made Dorothy Height an honorary alumna, recognizing her qualifications and acknowledging their wrongful exclusion.

Staying involved

In a 1993 VOA interview, Height described how her work gave her the energy to remain active at an age when many Americans are well into retirement.

"As I look back, through all the years, I always had a desire to make life better, not only for myself but for others. I think that when you do that, what you find is that you are not alone," she said. "If you keep moving along, you will find you will increasingly have people to join you. That for me has been the driving force. I believe there is so much people can do if we work together. I have spent most of my life working in that direction, and it keeps you moving."

Even into her 90's, when asked if she planned to retire, Height said she would never retire from working for social justice. And she didn't.