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Civil Rights Luminary Dorothy Height Dies at 98

April 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Gwen Ifill remembers civil rights activist Dr. Dorothy Height, who was a leader in both the African-American and women's rights movements. She died Tuesday at age 98.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight: remembering a heroine of the civil rights era.

And to Gwen Ifill.

GWEN IFILL: Dorothy Irene Height always made it her business to be in the room, whether it was working with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, or advising Martin Luther King Jr. and Roy Wilkins.

After a lifetime of activism, she received both the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1994 and the Congressional Medal of Honor from President George W. Bush in 2004.

DOROTHY IRENE HEIGHT, activist: Early in life, I learned that it was important to have some goals, and to have a sense that you were not just a worker, but that you had a mission, and to have a sense of a life’s work. And I chose to put my life’s work in the direction of equality and justice.

GWEN IFILL: Height returned to the White House earlier this year when President Obama unveiled an Oval Office copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, the president hailed her as the godmother of the civil rights movement.

Height served as president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, and was a longtime board member of the YWCA, where she began her career as a social worker.

I spoke with her in 2003, when she published her autobiography,

“Open Wide the Freedom Gates.” In it, she recalled the history she had witnessed, including her first meeting with a future civil rights icon.

DOROTHY IRENE HEIGHT: I first met Martin Luther King Jr. when he was just 15. He had come to Morehouse College as a gifted student.

And he was living with Dr. — and I was living with Dr. and Mrs. Mays, because, at that time, I could not be accepted in a white hotel. And Dr. Mays had wanted me to meet his favorite student.

And it was really a tremendous experience to sit there and hear a 15-year-old talk about whether he wanted to be a doctor or enter law or medicine. But you had a sense of purpose in him. And, 10 years later, 1955, he responded when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. And we all know the rest is history.

GWEN IFILL: Height was often one of the only women in the room, or on the stage, at pivotal moments in history.

Here she is seen standing to King’s left during 1963’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

DOROTHY IRENE HEIGHT: I think I was born a feminist, because I think, all of my life, I have been proud to be a girl and to be a woman. But it was a very significant experience to be a — the woman member among those men.

GWEN IFILL: Was there a downside to that?

DOROTHY IRENE HEIGHT: Well, it was hard sometimes for them to realize, as in the March on Washington, the importance of women’s rights.

I mean, I think that we were so absorbed in the racial situation and racism. And I — if you remember, at the March on Washington, despite all of our efforts — and many women joined me — we were not able to get a woman to speak. The only female voice heard was the singer Mahalia Jackson.

But in the basic things that really — we worked through that, and we supported the march, as everyone had to do, because it was a tremendous moment in American life.

GWEN IFILL: But her involvement didn’t end there. In 1964, she helped create Wednesdays in Mississippi, which sent interracial teams of Northern women to Mississippi to discuss racial justice with their Southern counterparts.

Known for her trademark hats, her sharp memory, and her astonishing tirelessness, Dorothy Height never quite retired.

DOROTHY IRENE HEIGHT: So long as God should let me live, I want to be out there working to help to see what needs to be done, and making whatever contribution I can make, doing it not for myself, but for others, not by myself, but with others, and for the betterment of us all.

And I hope that, as we leave this ceremony, all of us will feel that new sense of commitment, and to go forward, and to do it in a spirit knowing that we do not work alone.

GWEN IFILL: And, in her final years, Height worked to make sure that younger leaders would follow her path.

DOROTHY IRENE HEIGHT: I would like very much to see our younger generation, who have inherited open doors, take more time to learn their own history, so that they will see how they build on what has happened.

GWEN IFILL: Dorothy Height was 98 years old.