Like most women of her era, Dorothy Irene Height is one of the unsung heroines of the civil rights movement. Born on March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Virginia, Height moved with her family to Rankin, Pennsylvania, where she attended integrated schools and developed a gift as a talented orator and became involved in anti-lynching campaigns.
Height was accepted to Barnard College in New York, but was refused admittance when the school told her that it had met its quota for Black students. She then applied to New York University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in education and a master's degree in psychology.
After embarking on a career in social work, Height worked at the Harlem YWCA and was instrumental in integrating all of its centers and established the YWCA's Center for Racial Justice. After meeting educator Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council for Negro Women, she began volunteering for the organization, becoming president of the organization in 1957.
Height also began working with leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, James Farmer and others. She was instrumental in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, but was not one of the event's speakers. The experience may have led her to join the women's rights movement.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And in 2004, President George W. Bush presented her with a Congressional Gold Medal.
Height died in Washington, D.C., on April 20, 2010.
"Dorothy Height was a drum major for justice. A drum major for equality. A drum major for freedom. A drum major for service," President Obama said in remarks delivered at her funeral service. "And the lesson she would want us to leave with today — a lesson she lived out each and every day — is that we can all be first in service. We can all be drum majors for a righteous cause. So let us live out that lesson."
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(Photo: General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church)