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Civil rights activist Dorothy Height dies at 98
Updated 4/21/2010 12:00 AM ET
Tributes poured in Tuesday for civil rights pioneer Dorothy Height, the president of the National Council of Negro Women for more than 40 years and a pivotal figure during the civil rights era of the 1960s, who died Tuesday morning at the age of 98.

Height was "the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans," President Obama said in a statement.

She was still actively speaking out. She attended a Greater Washington Urban League dinner on March 17 and went into Howard University Hospital the next day. The hospital issued a statement saying she died of natural causes.

When Height was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004, President George W. Bush called her a "giant of the civil rights movement" who had been an informal adviser to presidents and first ladies for more than 50 years.

PHOTO GALLERY: Dorothy Height ARCHIVE: In 2006, she pushed for voters' bill reauthorization REACTION: The Oval shares politicians' remembrances CIVIL RIGHTS IN AMERICA: Share your memories

"She's a friend of first ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Rodham Clinton," Bush said. "She's known every president since Dwight David Eisenhower. She's told every president what she thinks since Dwight David Eisenhower."

Height's other honors include receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Reagan in 1989 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton in 1994. She always maintained that her principal achievement was raising the profile of black women while helping ensure that women of all races were given full opportunities.

"Black women are the backbone of every institution," Height often said.

She is an icon for black women, who have aspired to follow her example as a tenacious national leader who took the time to offer advice and encouragement to younger generations.

"She called me the daughter she never had and I called her my other mother," said Alexis Herman, Labor secretary under President Clinton. "She helped me bury my own mother in 1990."

The two met in 1972 when Height flew to Atlanta to meet Herman at the urging of civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph. They bonded over fried chicken at a restaurant.

"I'll never forget it. She loved knitting," Herman remembered Tuesday. "There she was at the table, knitting, and she tells me, 'My dear, what is it exactly that you are trying to do with your life?' ... That was classic Dorothy."

The two became close friends. For years they lived in the same building in Washington, D.C., and they spent every Christmas together for the past 30 years. At those gatherings, Height was famous for her sweet potato pie.

Born in Richmond, Va., and raised in the mill town of Rankin, Pa., Height won a scholarship to New York University for her oratory skills.

She started her career as a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department. At 25, she began decades of work with the national Young Women's Christian Association, during which she pushed the organization to lead efforts to provide equal opportunity and access for women of all races and cultures.

In 1937, National Council of Negro Women founder Mary McLeod Bethune noticed Height, then the assistant director of the Harlem YWCA in New York City, when she escorted first lady Eleanor Roosevelt into an NCNW meeting.

Bethune urged Height to join her in the fledgling organization, and that began Height's decades of work with the two groups in which she became one of the nation's most influential civil rights activists.

Height became president of the NCNW in 1957 and began working with the leadership of the burgeoning civil rights movement. She became known as one of the "Big Six," joining Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis and James Farmer at the forefront of the struggle.

Height, who never married, was often overshadowed by her male counterparts in the movement. She wrote in her 2003 memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates, that she was consistently cropped out of photographs of meetings between civil rights leaders and presidents.

"But I knew I was there," she wrote.

Behind the scenes, Height's influence was significant. She was part of the planning committee for the 1963 March on Washington and was among those who insisted that King speak last so his words would be remembered.

Known for her quiet manner and stylish dress — particularly her hats — Height often surpassed her male peers with her access and influence with policymakers.

"You had to be in a room with her," said former congressman Louis Stokes, who knew her for 40 years. "The minute she walked in, you gravitated to her. ... She was a person of strong leadership qualities that inspired others, but at the same time she was full of grace."

•In 1961, President Kennedy named her to the President's Commission on the Status of Women.

•In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson named her the only woman on a White House commission to implement civil rights legislation.

•In 1968, she was among a handful of civil rights leaders summoned to the White House by Johnson to counsel him on how to respond to King's assassination.

In her later years, Height helped create the Black Family Reunion events as a national celebration of kinship.

She remained the chairwoman of the NCNW's executive board until her death.

In her book, Height wrote that a phrase she heard Bethune use more than 50 years earlier had become a mantra for life: "The freedom gates are half ajar. We must pry them fully open."

Wrote Height: "I have been committed to the calling ever since."

Contributing: David Jackson

Posted 4/20/2010 7:14 AM ET
Updated 4/21/2010 12:00 AM ET
First lady Michelle Obama shakes hands with Dorothy Height after her remarks on the health care bill at the White House last September.
By Win McNamee, Getty Images
First lady Michelle Obama shakes hands with Dorothy Height after her remarks on the health care bill at the White House last September.