Dorothy Height, who in an 80-year campaign for social justice became
the grande dame of the civil rights era and its great unsung heroine,
died Tuesday morning at the age of 98.
Her death was announced by the National Council of Negro Women, of
which she was president emerita, and by Howard University Hospital in
Washington, where she died.
In a statement, President
Obama called Ms. Height “the godmother of the civil rights movement
and a hero to so many Americans.”
Ms. Height is widely credited as the first person in the modern civil
rights era to treat the problems of equality for women and equality for
African-Americans as a seamless whole, merging concerns that had
historically been largely separate.
That the American social landscape looks as it does today owes in no
small part to Ms. Height. Originally trained as a social worker, she was
president of the National Council of Negro Women for four decades, from
1957 to 1997, overseeing a range of programs on issues like voting
rights, poverty and, in later years, AIDS.
A longtime executive of the Y.W.C.A., she presided over the integration
of its facilities nationwide in the 1940s. With Gloria
Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Betty
Friedan and others, she helped found the National Women’s Political
Caucus in 1971.
In news coverage of the civil rights movement over the years, much was
made of the so-called “Big Six” who led it: Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy
Wilkins and Whitney Young. As the only woman to work regularly alongside
them on projects of national significance, Ms. Height was very much the
In 1963, Ms. Height, by then president of the National Council of Negro
Women, sat on the platform an arm’s length from Dr. King as he
delivered his epochal “I Have a Dream” speech. Ms. Height was one of the
march’s chief organizers and a prizewinning orator herself. She was not
asked to speak, however, though many other black leaders, all men,
addressed the crowd that day.
If Ms. Height felt doubly stigmatized throughout her long life — pushed
to the margins of women’s groups because of her race, and of black
groups because of her sex — she responded with a characteristic mix of
limitless energy and steely gentility to ally the two in the fight for
The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and other awards, she
was accorded a place of honor on the dais on Jan. 20, 2009, when Barack Obama
took the oath of office as the nation’s 44th president.
Ms. Height was the author of a memoir, “Open Wide the Freedom Gates”
(PublicAffairs, 2003), with a foreword by Maya Angelou.
The New York Times Book Review called the book “a poignant short course
in a century of African-American history.”
Ms. Height was born in Richmond, Va. The family moved to the Pittsburgh
area when she was 4. In her memoir, she recalled marching as a teenager
in Times Square in an antilynching rally.
After she was accepted at Barnard
College in 1929 as a star student from western Pennsylvania, she was
summoned to New York to meet with the dean.
There was a problem, the dean said. That Dorothy had been admitted to
Barnard, a prominent private college for women, was not in doubt. But
she could not enroll — not then. Barnard had already meet its quota for
Negro students that year, the dean told her.
She went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New
York University and did postgraduate work at Columbia
University and the New York School of Social Work.
Ms. Height, who never married, was a longtime resident of Washington.
She is survived by a sister, Anthanette Aldridge of New York City.