"So long as God let's me live," said Dorothy Irene Height in one of several oral history archive videos presented by the National Visionary Leadership Project, "I will be on the firing line."
She honored that commitment to herself and the causes of African Americans, women and children until her final days, with her every thought, word and deed. Truly people the world over lost an revered and tireless advocate in the early morning hours of April 18 , when Dr. Height, 98, died of natural causes after an extended hospitalization at Howard University Hospital.
"I am deeply saddened by the passing today of my dear friend and mentor, Dorothy Irene Height," former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman said. "She was a dynamic woman with a resilient spirit, who was a role model for women and men of all faiths, races and perspectives. For her, it wasn't about the many years of her life, but what she did with them." Herman's words were just the beginning of the outpouring of love that flooded e-mail, Facebook and Twitter in the hours after the hospital released information on Dr. Height's death. President Barack Obama, elected officials, organizational leaders, sorority sisters, co-workers, friends, admirers and more, shared their thoughts about the woman the late C. DeLores Tucker once called "the queen" of the civil rights movement.
"… 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," said President Obama.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said, "Throughout her life, Dr. Height wore many hats – literally and figuratively – with elegance and dignity, excellence and determination.
"… Today we mourn the loss, but celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Height – a visionary and great humanitarian who gave us all so much."
Dr. Height was born March 24, 1912 in Richmond, Va., to Fannie Burroughs Height and James Edward Height. Both widowers, each brought children to the marriage and had two children together, Dorothy and her sister, Anthanette. The family moved to Rankin, Pa. when she was four and stayed throughout her school years.
Early experiences – like being turned away at Barnard College because she was the third Black to show up with an admittance letter (the school's policy was to only admit two) – shaped her life's direction. "I learned that there is no advantage in bitterness, that I needed to go into action, which is something I have tried to follow since," Dr. Height said, according to a 2004 Associated Press article.
Dr. Height's Barnard acceptance letter got her immediate acceptance at New York University where, armed with her IBPO Elks National Oratorical Content winner's scholarship, she earned a bachelor of science degree in education and a master's degree in psychology.
After college she went to work helping others, starting in the New York City Department of Welfare. From there, she went to the YWCA of New York, Harlem Branch and, according to her memoir Open Wide Freedom Gates published in 2003, met Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune on the same day – a day that would empower the rest of her life's work.
That day started an association with the national political scene that resulted in her providing consultation to presidents through the Clinton administration, including being called to the White House in the hours after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
It was also the day she began as a volunteer with the National Council of Negro Women, an organization she would run as president from 1957 – 1998, then serving as chair and president emerita until her death. "My friend and mentor Dorothy Height lived the longest and most productive life of leadership for civil rights and women's rights in our history," Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.
Along the way, the lifelong member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority served as the organization's president from 1946 – 1957. "Mere words cannot express what Dr. Height has meant to the members of Delta Sigma Theta," said National President Cynthia M. A. Butler-McIntyre. "Her life of dedication, sacrifice and service coupled with her leadership abilities has definitely played a major role in shaping strategies, policies and procedures that continue to sustain Delta Sigma Theta as a viable African-American women’s organization here in the United States and abroad."
Her work in the civil rights movement called on all her training and experience. Dr. Height said one of her roles while working with Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney H. Young, A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins and John Lewis was to be a calming influence and to make sure that even in speaking up, she was a bridge to a solution and moving the process forward. She added that despite the general downplay of her role in public, she was an equal and active member. Maudine Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League, said, “She was the only woman amongst the civil rights leaders. I know it was a tough place to be, but she held her own. And she made sure that they not only talked about civil rights, but they also talked about women’s rights."
It was during this time she began an association with Ofield Dukes, noted Washington, D.C. public relations professional, then working for the vice president. Dukes, a close friend of Height at the time of her death, calls her a "pioneer" and said she "provided a foundation for the subsequent leadership role of African-American women."
Height never married and did not have any children, choosing instead to dedicate herself to making the world better for everyone. That choice and her subsequent service did not go unrecognized. Along with 36 honorary doctorate degrees, she has received some of the highest honors awarded in this nation. The many acknowledgements Dr. Height received shine a light on the tirelessness of her work that she sees as unfinished. She lays the incomplete work at the feet of institutional racism, which she notes people refuse to admit exists and which has an unfortunate consequence. "The climate of righteous indignation that there was something wrong is not here now," she said. "We have to take seriously that we really want to create a society of equality and freedom. We may compromise on strategy and tactic, but not the goal."
Butler-McIntyre said, "Dr. Height was a visionary leader and inspired others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more. The most important lesson that future generations of civil rights advocates can draw from her is the importance of working with people from diverse backgrounds and ideologies to achieve common goals."
Wade Henderson, president and CEO, said, "I have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Height for more than 20 years. Her wise counsel, political acumen, and pragmatic idealism were, quite simply, invaluable. She was active in the work of The Leadership Conference right up until it was just physically impossible for her to do so …
"If, as the saying goes, service is the rent we pay for the living, then Dr. Height is paid in full, many times over – and she