Dorothy Height, a founding mother of the American civil rights movement who fought for racial justice and gender equality for more than six decades, died on April 20 at the age of 98. From her participation in anti-lynching protests in the early 1930s, to a front row seat at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, Height witnessed the struggles and triumphs of the American civil rights movement.
President Obama honored Height, calling her “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement and a hero to so many Americans.” He praised her life’s work, adding, “Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality. She led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, and served as the only woman at the highest level of the Civil Rights Movement — witnessing every march and milestone along the way.”
A trained social worker, Height became the head of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in 1957, a crucial time in the history of the American civil rights movement. Working closely with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Height fought for school desegregation, employment opportunities and public accommodations. In August 1963, she stood with King when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
During the most urgent years of the civil rights movement, the NCNW organized voter registration drives and an education foundation for student civil rights activists. By the 1970s and 1980s, the organization sponsored programs dedicated to poverty reduction in the South and economic development in Africa.
Height is also known for highlighting the connections between equality for women and equality for African Americans in her work. Under her leadership, the NCNW established the Bethune Museum and Archives for Black Women, the first institution devoted to black women’s history.
Early in her life, Height experienced the discrimination that she spent her life fighting. In her memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates, she described an applicant interview she had at New York’s Barnard College.
“Although I had been accepted, they could not admit me,” she wrote. “It took me a while to realize that their decision was a racial matter: Barnard had a quota of two Negro students per year, and two others had already taken the spots.”
She instead studied at New York University, where she earned her master’s degree in psychology. During her lifetime, she received 36 honorary doctoral degrees, and in 1980, Barnard College awarded Height its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction.
For her tireless dedication to civil rights and social justice, Height received the United States’ two most prestigious civilian awards. In 1994, Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2004, George W. Bush presented her with the Congressional Gold Medal.
For more information, see Beyond Dr. King: More Stories of African-American Achievement and Free At Last: The U.S. Civil Rights Movement.