Dorothy Height, who was called the queen mother of the civil rights movement through seven decades of advocacy for racial equality — including 41 years as president of the National Council of Negro Women — has died. She was 98.
Height, who also played a key role in integrating the YWCA, died Tuesday of natural causes at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., the council announced.
Though not nearly as well known as her male contemporaries, Height was a steadfast presence in the civil rights movement. Often the only woman at strategy meetings with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders, she was a determined voice pressing the importance of issues affecting women and children, such as child care and education.
President Obama called Height “the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans.”
“Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality … and served as the only woman at the highest level of the civil rights movement — witnessing every march and milestone along the way,” Obama said in a statement.
Beginning in the 1930s, Height helped shape the national agenda for the YWCA. Traveling throughout the nation, she advocated for interracial charters at a time when racial segregation was the norm and resistance to integration was often fierce.
As president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1998, she led the group to expand its mission. Her initiatives included training thousands of women — housewives, teachers, office workers, students — to work as community advocates. Back in their own communities, they pushed for better housing, schools and stores. It was a way to help women escape what Height called the “triple bind of racism, sexism and poverty.”
One of Height’s most visible accomplishments was the Black Family Reunion Celebration, a three-day cultural event in Washington, D.C., with related events around the country. Founded to counter negative images of the black family, it has been held annually since 1986.
“Her fingerprints are quietly embedded in many of the transforming events of the last six decades as blacks, women and children pushed open and walked through previously closed doors of opportunity,” Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, wrote in 2006 in the Baltimore Times.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, told The Times in an interview, “Dorothy understood from the beginning the importance of both the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement and how they’re intertwined. She’s always tried to keep people together and united.”
The daughter of a nurse and a building contractor, Height was born March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Va., and grew up in Rankin, Pa., where she earned top grades in school.
After graduating from high school at 16, she was accepted to Barnard College in New York but was told she had to delay her entrance a year because the school had met its annual quota of two African American students.
Instead she entered New York University, which had no such quota. In four years she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work.
Height never married and had no children. She is survived by a sister, Anthenette Aldridge of New York City, and many nieces and nephews.
She joined the YWCA in 1937 and was there during a critical period in the organization’s history as it grappled with the issue of race. In the 1940s, she pushed to end the YWCA’s practice of separate conferences — one for black leaders and another for whites — and traveled the country helping local chapters implement the organization’s interracial charter.
Heads of local chapters in the South would not meet with her, and she was forced to spend nights with local African American families because hotels would not admit black guests. A white police officer once threatened her life when she defied his order to wait for a train in the “colored waiting room,” rather than on the platform with her white colleagues.
“He yelled again for me to go in the colored waiting room,” she later wrote. “‘This is my train,’ I called, starting to run, and he growled, ‘Don’t you go straight on that train or I’ll blow your brains out.’”
White colleagues surrounded her and together they got on the train. Later she reported the incident to Roy Wilkins, one of the leaders of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. “He said, ‘Dorothy, had you been a black man, you would have been dead.’”
Height was a 25-year-old assistant director at the YWCA in Harlem when then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and National Council of Negro Women founder Mary McLeod Bethune paid a visit. Height was assigned the job of greeting and escorting the first lady, but a conversation with Bethune, the daughter of former slaves, altered the course of Height’s life.
We need you at the council, Bethune said to Height.
“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.”
Height began volunteering at the council and became the organization’s fourth president in 1957 as the civil rights movement mobilized for major battles in the South.
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.