"I remember how she made her fingers into a fist to illustrate for the women the significance of working together to eliminate injustice," Height wrote in her 2003 memoir "Open Wide the Freedom Gates."
In 1963 she traveled to Selma, Ala., to support a group of children who were arrested after fighting for their parents' right to vote.
She also organized "Wednesdays in Mississippi," a program that brought Northern white and black women to the South for dialogue aimed at defusing tension.
In 1965 Height was named head of the YWCA's newly established Office of Racial Justice, charged with leading the organization's campaign against discrimination. Through such work she collaborated with the civil rights movement's key leaders, including King, Wilkins, James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph and Whitney Young, a group often referred to as the Big Six. Height made seven, but her role was often overlooked because of her gender.
As King and his associates planned what would become the historic March on Washington, Height pushed to add a woman to the list of leaders scheduled to address the marchers, but the idea met with great resistance.
One of the main antagonists was march organizer Bayard Rustin.
"Even on the morning of the march there had been appeals to include a woman speaker," Height recalled in her memoir. "But Bayard Rustin held fast, insisting that women were part of all the groups — the churches, the synagogues, labor — represented on the podium. In the end, Mahalia Jackson, who sang the national anthem, was the only female voice.
"That moment was vital to awakening the women's movement. Mr. Rustin's stance showed us that men honestly didn't see their position as patriarchal or patronizing. They were happy to include women in the human family, but there was no question as to who headed the household!"
Under her leadership, the National Council of Negro Women offered job training, set up a school breakfast program in Mississippi, registered voters and pushed to ensure that African Americans were included in the census. In the 1980s, Height also led African American Women for Reproductive Rights, an abortion rights group.
A major council event held in several cities, including Los Angeles, was the Black Family Reunion. The festival challenged the premise of "The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America," a documentary by Bill Moyers that described the disintegration of two-parent black families. Height envisioned the reunion as a way to honor and encourage the extended family that had been a source of strength in the African American community.
Height retired from the YWCA in 1977 but continued to lead the National Council of Negro Women for two more decades. The council celebrated Height's birthday every year with an "Uncommon Height" gala fundraiser.
On her 90th birthday in 2002, well-wishers such as Oprah Winfrey and boxing promoter Don King helped raise $5million, enough to pay off the mortgage on the organization's national headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.
In 2004, President Bush awarded Height the Congressional Gold Medal for her many decades of service. Inscribed on the medal is a classic Height quote: "We African American women seldom do just what we want to do, but always do what we have to do. I am grateful to have been in a time and place where I could be a part of what was needed."
Stewart is a former Times staff writer.