Born in Richmond, Virginia, in March 1912, Dr. Height was raised in Rankin, Pennsylvania. Height was admitted to Barnard College in 1929, but was denied entrance because the school had already reached its limit of two black students. She said the experience left her crushed.
“I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep for days,” Height said.
Determined to get the education she deserved, she visited New York University with her acceptance letter from Barnard and was admitted on the spot. She earned her bachelor and master’s degrees from NYU and her doctorate from Columbia. In 2004, Barnard College formally apologized, and asked her to become an honorary alumna. She accepted.
Dr. Height was among the coalition of African American leaders who pushed civil rights to the center of the American political stage after World War II, and she was a key figure in the struggles for school desegregation, voting rights, employment opportunities and public accommodations in the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. Height was president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years. The 4 million-member advocacy group consists of 34 national and 250 community-based organizations. It was founded in 1935 by educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who was one of Dr. Height’s mentors.
In August 1963, Dr. Height was on the platform with Martin Luther King, Jr. when he delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. But she would say later that she was disappointed that no one advocating women’s rights spoke that day at the March on Washington. Later in life, she became an advocate for gay rights as well, and said: “Civil rights are civil rights. There are no persons who are not entitled to their civil rights. … We have to recognize that we have a long way to go, but we have to go that way together.”
While she was not a household name, like Dr. King, Dr. Height wielded enormous influence with the powerful. In the 1940s, she lobbied first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on behalf of civil rights causes. In the 1950s, she prodded Dwight Eisenhower to move more aggressively on school desegregation issues. In 1994, Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In 2004, George W. Bush awarded her the Congressional Gold Medal. When America inaugurated its first black President in 2009, Dr. Height sat on the dais as he took the oath of office.
In a statement issued by the White House, 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 . . . witnessing every march and milestone along the way,” Obama said. “And even in the final weeks of her life — a time when anyone else would have enjoyed their well-earned rest — Dr. Height continued her fight to make our nation a more open and inclusive place for people of every race, gender, background and faith.”
The late activist C. DeLores Tucker once called Height an icon to all African-American women.
“I call Rosa Parks the mother of the civil rights movement,” Tucker said in 1997. “Dorothy Height is the queen.”
As befits a queen, Dr. Height was never without a colorful crown. Melissa from Shakesville noted that she “was a woman who believed in gorgeous hats.” Here are a few. I’m sure she’s wearing one in heaven.