Dr. Dorothy Height, the legendary civil rights icon who championed social justice, was one of the crowning trailblazers from an era that revolutionized Black Americans’ leverage in politics, economics and employment.
On April 29, Height’s funeral amassed a diverse cross-section of humanity – feminists, political titans, entertainers, the general public – a testament to her democracy and ability to unite seemingly divergent crowds.
“I was gratified to attend Dr. Height’s funeral with a number of my colleagues on the Council,” said DC City Council Chairman Vincent Gray in an e-mailed statement. “The mixture of family, friends, civil rights leaders, national dignitaries, celebrities, and everyday Washingtonians was a testament to the respect we all had for Dr. Height and her compassion and concern for people from all walks of life.”
Throngs of mourners – most who’d never met the former National Council of Negro Women president — gathered outside the Washington National Cathedral hours before dawn in hopes of receiving one of 700 tickets allotted for the public.
Joi-Marie McKenzie, a Washington, D.C. blogger and one of Height’s Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters, said despite the somber circumstances, “there was an electricity in the rafters of the cathedral.”
“As we waited for the service to begin, everyone had a Dorothy Height story,” said McKenzie. “Whether it was the young woman from Takoma Park who went to the same hair dresser as Dr. Height, or Gwendolyn Boyd, past president of Delta Sigma Theta who recalled that Dr. Height was there when she became ordained as a minister—it seems that Dr. Height touched everyone in her own special way.”
During the funeral, President Obama wept openly while Height’s relatives and friends recounted their fondest memories of the Congressional Gold Medal recipient. When it was his turn to speak, Obama spoke of his own relationship with the legendary leader.
“Michelle and I didn’t know Dr. Height as well, or as long, as many of you…, but we did come to know her in the early days of my campaign,” said Obama during his 13-minute eulogy. “And we came to love her, as so many loved her. We came to love her stories. And we loved her smile. And we loved those hats — that she wore like a crown— regal. In the White House, she was a regular. She came by not once, not twice — 21 times she stopped by the White House.”
The Washington National Cathedral was swathed in a sea of colors as women donned “Height hats” in the pioneer’s honor. During his speech, the Rev. Al Sharpton said he hoped there was a hat store in heaven.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who wore a wide-brimmed black hat adorned with flowers, lauded the 98-year-old’s temperate disposition. “She was elegant, but she had no airs. She was passionate but never overheated,” Clinton said Thursday. “She understood that women’s rights and civil rights are indivisible. She stood up for the rights of women every chance she had.”
Other speakers included former President Bill Clinton; Dr. Camille Cosby, wife of activist/comedian Bill Cosby; Dr. Bernard C. Randolph Stephen, Height’s nephew; Bernice King, daughter of civil rights icon Martin Luther King and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young.
Willimae Delaney, Height’s former personal assistant and manicurist, was most impressed with Young’s tribute to the former Delta Sigma Theta president and his homage to the marginalized women who helped power the civil rights movement.
“He spoke of Dr. Height in reference to her being involved in the beginning of coordinating the civil rights movement in that room with all those men – Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, Phillip Randolph — and how they wouldn’t’ allow her to speak at the March on Washington because she was a woman,” said Delaney.
“Then he mentioned other women’s names that you never hear about that were in involved in the civil rights movement and most impressive was that he asked the men in the church to give a pledge that they’d never have another meeting and not have a woman present because she was so adamant ”
However, Delta Sigma Theta National President Cynthia M.A. Butler-McIntyre said Height would have been most pleased with President Obama’s stirring tribute to her life.
“People from around the world traveled to the nation’s capital to pay tribute to the life and legacy of Dr. Dorothy Irene Height. The many services held in her memory were truly fit for a queen,” said Butler-McIntyre in a statement sent to the AFRO. “As a leader in the fight for justice and equality for all people, she often expressed how much it meant to see the first African-American president sworn in to office. So, I know that she would have been honored to have been remembered by President Obama in such a poignant and touching eulogy.”
Height’s three-day memorial ended at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Md. Valerie Fraling, an AFRO columnist and Height’s sorority sister, said she came to a powerful conclusion as the activist’s ivory-colored casket was lowered into the ground.
“Just before they entombed her hundreds of single roses that each graveside participator walked up and placed on top of the wooden casket before it was placed in the vault,” said Fraling. “What a lasting and touching tribute. This visionary woman received her roses while she lived and even in death, they were still giving them to her.”