Dorothy Height, who was called the queen mother of the civil rights movement through seven decades of advocacy for racial equality -- including 41 years as president of the National Council of Negro Women -- has died. She was 98.
Height, who also played a key role in integrating the YWCA, died Tuesday of natural causes at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., the council announced.
Though not nearly as well known as her male contemporaries, Height was a steadfast presence in the civil rights movement. Often the only woman at strategy meetings with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders, she was a determined voice pressing the importance of issues affecting women and children.
Beginning in the 1930s, she helped shape the national agenda for the YWCA. Traveling throughout the nation, she prodded local chapters to implement interracial charters at a time when racial segregation was still the order of the day and resistance to integration often was fierce.
As president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1998, she led the group to expand its mission. Her initiatives included training thousands of women --housewives, teachers, office workers, students -- to work as community advocates. Back in their own communities, they pushed for better housing, schools and stores. It was a way to help women escape what Height called the "triple bind of racism, sexism and poverty."
One of Height's most visible accomplishments was the Black Family Reunion Celebration, a three-day cultural event in Washington, D.C., with related events around the country. Founded to counter negative images of the black family, it has been held annually since 1986.
"Her fingerprints are quietly embedded in many of the transforming events of the last six decades as blacks, women and children pushed open and walked through previously closed doors of opportunity," Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, wrote in 2006 in the Baltimore Times.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said, "Dorothy understood from the beginning the importance of both the civil rights movement and the women's rights movement and how they're intertwined. She's always tried to keep people together and united."
The daughter of a nurse and a building contractor, Height was born March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Va., and grew up in Rankin, Pa., where she earned top grades in school and distinguished herself with her oratory skills. After graduating from high school at 16, she was accepted into Barnard College in New York but was told she had to delay her entrance a year because the school had met its annual quota of two black students.
Instead she entered New York University, which had no such quota. In four years she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in social work. Height never married and had no children.
She joined the YWCA in 1937 and was there during a critical period in the organization's history as it grappled with the issue of race. She was a 25-year-old assistant director at the YWCA in Harlem when then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and National Council of Negro Women founder Mary McLeod Bethune paid a visit. Height was assigned the job of greeting and escorting the first lady, but a conversation with Bethune, the daughter of former slaves, altered the course of Height's life.
We need you at the council, Bethune said to Height.
Height began volunteering at the council and became the organization's fourth president in 1957.
In 1965 Height was named head of the YWCA's newly established Office of Racial Justice, charged with leading the organization's campaign against discrimination. Through such work she collaborated with the civil rights movement's key leaders, including King, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph and Whitney Young, a group often referred to as the Big Six. Height made seven, but her role often was overlooked because of the times in which she lived.
In 2004, President George W. Bush awarded Height the Congressional Gold Medal.