I first met Dr. Dorothy Height nine years ago at the United Nations Summit on Racism in Durban, South Africa. I had the privilege of a quick interview during which she talked about co-writing the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948, nearly 20 years before passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Height, who died earlier today at the age of 98, was a lifelong civil and equal rights activist. After graduating from New York University with a bachelors and a masters in education psychology she joined the National Council of Negro Women, an organization she would go on to lead for 40 years from 1957-1997. Height, always in a purple hat and delicate suit, was a wise councillor to numerous presidents, encouraging Dwight D. Eisenhower to desegregate schools and LBJ to hire African American women.
At the height of the struggle for Civil Rights she organized Wednesdays in Mississippi, bringing together white and black women from the North and the South. As Maudine Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League, told The Afro-American Newspapers, Dr. Height “was the only woman amongst the civil rights leaders. I know it was a tough place to be, but she held her own. And she made sure that they not only talked about civil rights, but they also talked about women’s rights.”
I last glimpsed Dr. Height — she garnered 36 honorary doctorate degrees over the years – at Barack Obama’s inauguration, her purple hat braving the crisp breeze that day. As President Obama tweeted this afternoon, “Today we lost the godmother of the civil rights movement, Dr. Dorothy Height, who devoted her life to those struggling for equality.” Her legacy will surely continue to have an impact for many generations to come.