*Dorothy Height, former president of the National Council of Negro Women and a leading activist in the 1960s civil rights movement, died Tuesday of natural causes, according to the Associated Press. She was 98.
Height, who had marched against lynching as a teen in the 1920s and assisted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists in galvanizing the civil rights movement, had been at Howard University Hospital since March 18.
Born on March 24, 1912 in Richmond, Va., Dorothy Irene Height and her 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.
She 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.”
In 1963, Height was the only woman on the speaker’s platform when Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. But she wasn’t on the program for the March on Washington even though she was the nucleus of the meetings held by the mostly male civil rights leaders who planned it.
Height told NPR in 2003 that the experience was uplifting despite the fact that a gospel singer was the only woman heard from the podium that day.
“My being seated there had some very special meaning because women had been trying to get a woman to speak on the program,” Height said, “but we were always met by the planners with the idea that women were represented in all of the different groups, in the churches, in the synagogues, in the unions, organizations and the like. So the only voice we heard of a woman was that of Mahalia Jackson.”
Height said women in the movement met the next day to discuss ways to deal with the issues of racism and sexism.
“All of it was toward saying how can we bring all the people who need to understand the role that women have played, but also the predicament women face, and especially we who are women of color, where we’ve had both sex and racial discrimination as a characteristic of our lives,” she said.
Height received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 from President Bill Clinton.
Her passing marks 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.
Below: Dr. Height talks about the experience of women in the Civil Rights Movement.