WASHINGTON – Dorothy Height, the leading female voice of the 1960s civil rights movement and a participant in historic marches with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, died Tuesday. She was 98.
Height led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years. She continued actively speaking out into her 90s but had been at Howard University Hospital for some time. The hospital said in a statement she died of natural causes.
President Barack Obama called her "the godmother of the civil rights movement" and a hero to many Americans. Obama said in a statement that Height was the only woman at the highest level of the civil rights movement and witnessed "every march and milestone along the way."
It was the second death of a major civil rights figure in less than a week. Benjamin L. Hooks, the former longtime head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, died Thursday in Memphis at 85.
As a teenager, Height marched in New York's Times Square shouting, "Stop the lynching." In the 1950s and 1960s, she was the leading woman helping King and other activists orchestrate the civil rights movement.
One of Height's sayings was, "If the time is not ripe, we have to ripen the time." She liked to quote 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who said that the three effective ways to fight for justice are to "agitate, agitate, agitate."
The late activist C. DeLores Tucker once called Height an icon to all African-American women.
"I call Rosa Parks the mother of the civil rights movement," Tucker said in 1997. "Dorothy Height is the queen."
Height was on the platform at the Lincoln Memorial, sitting only a few feet from King, when he gave his famous "I have a dream" speech at the March on Washington in 1963.
"He spoke longer than he was supposed to speak," Height recalled in a 1997 Associated Press interview. But after he was done, it was clear King's speech would echo for generations, she said, "because it gripped everybody."
Height became president of the National Council of Negro Women in 1957 and held the post until 1997, when she was 85. She remained chairman of the group.
"I hope not to work this hard all the rest of my life," she said at the time. "But whether it is the council, whether it is somewhere else, for the rest of my life, I will be working for equality, for justice, to eliminate racism, to build a better life for our families and our children."
Height received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 from President Bill Clinton.
To celebrate Height's 90th birthday in March 2002, friends and supporters raised $5 million to enable her organization to pay off the mortgage on its Washington headquarters. The donors included Oprah Winfrey and Don King.
Height was born in Richmond, Va., and the family moved to the Pittsburgh area when she was four. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees from New York University and did postgraduate work at Columbia University and the New York School of Social Work. (She had been turned away by Barnard College because it already had its quota of two black women.)
In 1937, while she was working at the Harlem YWCA, Height met famed educator Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had come to speak at a meeting of Bethune's organization. Height eventually rose to leadership roles in both the council and the YWCA.