Dorothy Height: Activist who fought for the rights of black Americans for six decades

If Rosa Parks was the mother of the modern US civil-rights movement, Dorothy Height was its queen.

Parks's refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery Alabama one December day in 1955 caught the imagination of the world, an unforgettable gesture of defiance against the evil of racism. By contrast, few people knew Height's name. Yet for more than 60 years she fought on two fronts at the highest level of the movement, not just for the equality of black Americans, but for the equality of women as well.

As an activist, she cut her teeth in protests in Harlem during the 1930s. She had dealings with the administrations of every president from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush, who awarded her the Congressional Gold Medal, the country's highest civilian award, in 2004. Height was a close adviser to Martin Luther King, and was with him on the platform on the Washington Mall when he delivered his "I have a dream" speech on 28 August 1963.

Yet, typically, she was sitting to one side, scarcely noticed. To her enduring regret, neither she nor any other woman was on the programme as a speaker that historic day. The only female voice heard belonged to the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who performed an old negro spiritual.

By then, Height was already president of the NCNW, the National Council of Negro Women, a post she held until 1997 when she was 85 years old. At the end of her long career, as at its beginning, she was elegant, dignified and quietly commanding. Almost never, someone remarked, did she raise her voice. But queens rarely need to.

Dorothy Height grew up in Rankin, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh where the schools were integrated. The race issue, however, was never far away. In 1929 she won a student contest for public speaking, along with a college scholarship, only to be initially turned away at the regional finals because of her colour. After her victory, she was admitted to the prestigious Barnard College in New York, but was then denied entry because Barnard had already filled the two places it allotted each year to African Americans.

None the less the city would become her home. After graduating from New York University she was first trained as a social worker, before turning her attentions to the emerging struggle for civil rights. Her mentors were Adam Clayton Powell, minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and then his son, the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr, who would later represent Harlem in the House of Representatives in Washington.

Her most important alliance however was with Mary McLeod Bethune, the educator and civil-rights advocate who founded the NCNW in 1935 and became Franklin Roosevelt's Adviser for Minority Affairs. Height took over her mantle, specifically at the helm of the National Council and more generally as the pre-eminent female figure in the struggle for racial equality.

Apart from her leadership of the NCNW, her most visible function was as an administrator of the YWCA, whose desegregation she helped secure in the 1940s. In the 1960s, at the height of the civil-rights struggle, Height also ran the "Wednesdays in Mississippi" group, bringing black and white women together to promote understanding between the races. But her most important role was backstage, as an adviser, mediator and quiet counsellor to King and the other male giants of the civil-rights movement, few of whom were lacking in ego.

"We were a group of peers," she told an interviewer in the 1990s. "There were times when the men differed with each other and I could help bridge the gap. Yes, when the pictures were taken, I was at the end of the row, and sometimes cut out. But I had great respect for those men. You may ask why I didn't step forward – but who steps ahead of Martin Luther King in a march?"

Tellingly, it was Dorothy Height whom King asked to go to Birmingham, Alabama to comfort the families of the four little girls killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan, less than three weeks after the epochal rally in Washington.

That outrage helped shock the Kennedy administration into action. But even when the landmark civil-rights acts of the 1960s had been signed into law by Lyndon Johnson, Height believed black Americans would have to fight to exercise the new rights that were now theirs on paper. Gradually she came around to the notion of more militant "black power", saying: "White power in the system in which we live is a reality. Simply talking about bettering race relations without changing the power relations will get us nowhere."

Today the most imposing physical monument to Height is the handsome headquarters of the NCNW, on Pennsylvania Avenue in the heart of monumental Washington, on the site of an old slave market, almost in the shadow of the Washington Capitol where on 20 January 2009, she occupied a place of honour at the inauguration of America's first black president.

Her views, however, never changed. The country, Dorothy Height continued to insist, had still not come to grips with institutional racism. But today's black Americans lacked the "righteous indignation" of their forebears in the 1950s and 1960s. "We must keep on struggling for jobs and freedom. We are not going to get there by talking alone. We have to make the laws work."

Dorothy Irene Height, civil-rights activist: born Richmond, Virginia 24 March 1912; President, National Council of Negro Women 1957-1997; died Washington DC 20 April 2010.

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