Remembering Dorothy Height

06/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bonnie St. John Olympic Ski Medalist, Amputee, Rhodes Scholar, former White House Official, Corporate Leadership Expert, and Best-Selling Author

Today we lay to rest one of the great leaders of modern times, Dr. Dorothy Height. This beloved woman will always be remembered as one of the foremost pioneers of the civil rights movement -- particularly with regard to her work with women of color. In an era where women, especially African-American women, were often relegated to the lowest possible positions in society, Dorothy Height dedicated her life to one purpose: that equality for women and equality for African-Americans are issues that go hand in hand.

Dr. Height's distinguished career spanned over 80 years. In 1937 she joined the National Council of Negro Women, later becoming president of this organization and one of its most influential leaders. She led the effort to desegregate the YWCA and founded its Center for Racial Justice. She was a trusted adviser on civil rights to presidents going back as far as Franklin Roosevelt. In the '60s, she brought together black and white women, from the north and the south, for productive social dialogue through her innovative and controversial "Wednesdays in Mississippi" program. She was awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, the two highest civilian awards our nation bestows. She stood next to Dr. Martin Luther King on the day he had a dream. And she sat in her wheelchair, at age 97, alongside Barack Obama as he was inaugurated as the first black President of the United States.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Height a few years ago for my book, How Strong Woman Pray. I was not surprised to find that she was a woman of strong faith, and prayer was a daily part of her life. When I asked her about how she was able to persevere all the challenges she had to face over the years, she merely said, "I always feel the hand of God. It's prayer that helps you through."

We met again at the White House when I was invited there to participate in the celebration of Black History month two years ago. Resplendent in her trademark colorful hat, she was so gracious and kind, never having lost that wonderful charm that has captivated and motivated so many people to follow her all these years. It was especially poignant for me to be able to introduce my daughter, then 13 years old, to this heroine of our culture. When in the presence of someone like Dorothy Height, you can't help but be awed by the courage and sacrifice it took for her to achieve all that she did. We owe her our respect, our honor, and our sincere gratitude. I am proud to be able to stand on the shoulders of her strength, and I am determined to do my part to keep her vision alive.