Dorothy Height, Civil Rights Icon and Leader, Passes Away at 98

By Julianne Hing Apr 20, 2010

Dorothy Height, the civil rights activist and pioneer, passed away early this morning at the age of 98. The AP is reporting that Height, who had been ill for several weeks at Howard University, died of natural causes. Height served for 40 years as the president of the National Council of Negro Women, from 1957 to 1997, when she became the chair and president emerita of the organization. But her entire life, from her early years as a youth activist to her final days of life, were dedicated to a life of service to fight racism, enact and protect civil rights and institute lasting change. Height was famously radicalized after being denied admission to Barnard College. She had been accepted to the school, but arrived after other Black students had enrolled. Barnard, which had a strict two person limit on the number of Black students who could attend, turned Height away. She went on to NYU, where she later also got her master’s degree. Height officially began her civil rights activism in 1933 when she became a leader of the United Christian Youth Movement of North America, working to desegregate the military and speak out about lynchings. She went on to help Eleanor Roosevelt plan a World Youth Conference in 1938 and then ascended the leadership ranks of the YWCA, where she fought for the rights of Black domestic workers and was named the head of the YWCA’s Office of Racial Justice. When she became the president of the NCNW, Height strengthened the organization’s infrastructure and tackled education, poverty, drug abuse and health care. She was one of the only women in the civil rights movement’s highest levels of leadership. Height received the President Medal of Freedom in 1994 from President Clinton. President Obama praised Height as the "godmother of the civil rights movement," a woman who witnessed "every march and milestone along the way." Height, who even starred in an ad for the Census, exhorted people to remember their civic and social responsibilities: "You have the power to benefit your community for the next 10 years," Height says. "It is your civic duty. Don’t let anybody or anything stop you." She could have been talking about many other fights in our lives today. Height will be honored always for her tenacity, perseverance, and lifelong commitment to fight for equality and justice. "If the time is not ripe, we have to ripen the time," she famously said, words that are as true today as they were when she first spoke them.