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Remembering a Hero and an Era: The Passing of Dorothy Height

06/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We have lost one of the brightest, but more recently overlooked, stars in the constellation of
national heroes with the passing of Dorothy Height at 98. The graceful civil rights leader
passed away at Howard University Hospital in Washington, DC yesterday. Her life, so extraordinary, it is barely captured by her array of awards and lengthy resume, which included presiding over the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a forty year run as head of the National Council of Negro Women beginning in 1957 under President Eisenhower, the NAACP's Spingarn Award, a Congressional Gold Medal in 2004 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. She stood with Martin Luther King at the March on Washington in August 1963 and routinely met with presidents to promote the cause of civil rights during one of the most pivotal periods for both African-Americans and women. She once noted, "Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes, but by the opposition he or she has overcome to reach his goals."

The Richmond, Virginia-born leader took the helm of the National Council of Negro Women from another civil rights legend: Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and humanitarian who was herself was the daughter of freed slaves. Height's style was punctuated by her hats, articulation, dignity and grace, but for those in the civil rights world it was her tenacity and lifelong dogged belief in the promise of American equality that made her stand out. If the times were going to change some catalysts were needed and one of the most dignified and powerful was Dorothy Height. After her 1929 admission to Barnard was dashed when their quota for "negro" females was met, she carried on her studies at New York University and later worked helping poor people in a government position. Her leadership extended to countless community efforts, including helping to integrate the YWCA, as well as support to government and human relations committees to promote justice, dialogue and tolerance for all Americans. It is hard to explain today the true impact of people like Height, who in a much different era and in the face of formidable resistance, violent backlash and governmental ambivalence kept an even keel and an eye on what mattered. "We've got to work to save our children and do it with full respect for the fact that if we do not, no one else is going to do it," she once explained.

In an age where accolades often come too early and too cheap to their recipients, they don't here. President Obama called her a hero and the "godmother of the civil rights movement" noting, "Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality ... and served as the only woman at the highest level of the civil rights movement -- witnessing every march and milestone along the way." The Anti-Defamtion League said, "She was a national treasure, an inspiration for generations of Americans, a fighter for empowerment of women and minorities, and a mentor and role model for so many." Commentator Colbert King stated, "She personified the grace, grit and wisdom of our elders. She was one of the foundation stones upon which the modern civil rights movement rested. Replaced? Never. Remembered? Forever."

We all stand on the shoulders of such icons. The question that remains is what will we do to cultivate the gifts of their efforts.