Dorothy Height, 'Godmother' of 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 98

Apr 20, 2010· 1 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.
Dr. Height looks to President Bush in 2004 as she is awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Reuters/Larry Downing

Dorothy Height, 98, the pioneering female leader of the 1960s civil rights movement, died of natural causes this morning at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Height, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during some of the civil rights movement’s most critical moments, led the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for 40 years.

In a statement, President Barack Obama called her “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement and a hero to so many Americans.”

“Even in the final weeks of her life—a time when anyone else would have enjoyed their well-earned rest—Dr. Height continued to fight to make our nation a more open and inclusive place for people of every race, gender, background, and faith,” said Obama.

When King orated his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Height stood feet away on the platform.

One of Height’s oft-repeated phrases was, “If the time is not ripe, we have to ripen the time.”

Born on March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Virginia, Height’s civil rights activism began in her teenage years when she marched in New York’s Times Square shouting, “Stop the lynching.”

In 1933, Height joined the United Christian Youth Movement of North America, which broadened her sense of community activism from local causes to larger issues, such as desegregating the armed forces and banishing lynching.

On November 7, 1937, while working at the Harlem YMCA, Height escorted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt into a NCNW meeting. This brought Height to the attention of Mary McLeod Bethune, NCNW’s founder. Bethune would eventually take Height under her wing and serve as her mentor.

In 1957, Height replaced McLeod as the Chairman of the NCNW, a position she held until 1998, when she became Chair and President Emerita.

When Obama became the first African American elected president, Height was consumed with emotion. She told Washington TV station WTTG: “People ask me, did I ever dream it would happen, and I said ‘If you didn’t have the dream, you couldn’t have worked on it.' ”