WASHINGTON — A long line wrapped around the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women on Pennsylvania Avenue, as thousands of people waited to pay their respects to a civil rights legend. The late Dorothy I. Height fought tirelessly for equality and unity. On Wednesday evening, her legacy lived on, as people of different backgrounds gathered as one in her honor.
Elaborate flower arrangements cascaded he walls of the dimly lit room for the wake, which was open to the public from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. D.C. National Guard members stood at attention on each side of Height’s coffin surrounded by deep red roses.
Height died of natural causes on Tuesday, April 20, after nearly a month at Howard University Hospital. She was 98.Height served as president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for nearly half a century. As head of the organization, Height always ensured that women’s and children’s issues remained on the civil rights agenda.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton, in a joint statement, said, “Our nation is poorer for her loss but infinitely richer for the life she led, the progress she achieved and the people she touched.”
It became evident just how many people she had touched by the vast numbers who came out to the public viewing. While waiting in line, people reminisced as they exchanged stories and thoughts on Height.
D.C. resident and NCNW member Crissy Crittenden explained Height’s admirable demeanor: “She had a quiet spirit; didn’t need a whole lot of recognition. She was pivotal in the women’s movement, but was not concerned with being on the forefront. I would definitely add humility to the top of her list of characteristics.”
Height had a career in civil rights that spanned nearly 80 years, from anti-lynching protests in the early 1930s to the inauguration of President Obama in 2009. In everything that she did, Height fought quietly, but firmly and she always made herself accessible to the public.
Evangelist Mary Clement of Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, where a community celebration will be held at 7 p.m. today, said she had the honor of meeting Height on several occasions.
“She was at the Black Family Reunion every year,” Clement said. “She wasn’t boastful and was very humble. I loved her, and I’m so happy I got to meet her. I remember her telling me, one of her happiest moments was when Dr. Martin Luther King invited her in 1963 to stand at the podium with him when he was giving his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
People came great lengths to pay homage to Height. Bev Paige lives in Louisiana and was on a business trip in Philadelphia. When she got word that the wake would be open to the public, she and her colleague jumped on I-95. “We drove down immediately because she was a soror and we just couldn’t miss it,” said Paige, referring to Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., of which Height was president for a decade.
“She’s always been very dear to me,” Paige said. “I used to see her at all of the national Delta Sigma Theta conventions, but I first met her in 1992 at a signing for ‘A Celebration of Achievement.'” Height autographed Paige’s poster but Paige left the poster on the plane.
“I called her office and within days she personalized and autographed another poster and sent it to me. I was so honored that she took time out of her schedule to do that. This attests to her gentle, considerate and humble spirit.”
When asked what message Height would most likely want to leave behind, Paige declared, “She was about women’s rights. Her message would definitely be that all women are capable.”
Washington resident George Marion Jr. was one of many men who came out for support during this time of mourning. “My experience tonight has been somber, but at the same time it’s been jubilant listening to the elders tell their back stories,” Marion said. “As for Ms. Height, I think her legacy is a living legacy. This organization [NCNW] continues to be at the forefront of women’s issues. … I think one thing we should take from her is her level of integrity. “
Whether wearing a fabulous hat, a work uniform, a suit or a backpack, people of all ages united at the wake on Wednesday evening, remembering Dorothy Height and what she stood for.