WASHINGTON—Shiloh Baptist Church on Ninth Street Northwest was filled with family, friends, community members and even a former U.S. president to celebrate and share the story of civil rights leader Dorothy I. Height.
Facing the audience was a picture of Height dressed in purple with purple flowers wrapped around the frame and a purple hatbox underneath on the left. Gracing the pulpit in a free-flowing long white dress and a shawl wrapped around her arms was the host, Susan L. Taylor, author and former editorial director of Essence magazine.
Throughout the night — filled with tributes, video clips, selections by the choir and performances by Stevie Wonder and Cicely Tyson — it was made clear that Height was an activist ahead of her time when it came to helping other people. “She was always there,” stated the Rev. Al Sharpton, fighting for civil rights, women’s rights and human rights.
Sharpton also mentioned how she fought racial injustice in Harlem before the civil rights movement. “She was part of fighting [Jim Crow] in the north,” the New York activist said.
Former President Bill Clinton told a story of how he visited a desert village in Senegal and found that 30 years before he and his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arrived in Africa that Height and the National Council of Negro Women had built a well for the village to survive. “There was a goat name Bill Clinton,” he said as he began his story.
Later, Hillary Clinton told the audience, “What my husband, Bill, forgot to tell you in that story was” that the people from the village called Height “Queen Dorothy.” The crowd laughed in response.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-Washington, said, “She lived as an activist ‘til the end of her life.” Height died on April 20 at Howard University Hospital a few weeks after her 98th birthday.
In her many fights for justice and equality, she was often the sole woman among men. During a 1967 trip to Israel, Height was the only person who had traveled abroad and the only woman in the entourage, said Vernon Jordan, director of Lazard, Freres & Co. and former president of the National Urban League. “She taught us the ins and out of international traveling” and “was a leader” in the way she conducted herself on the trip.
Height was also the only woman among the leading civil rights leaders, known as the Big Six — or Big Seven by historians who included her. “She never became bitter, hostile, gave up or in,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., describing her as “pure as gold, sweet as honey.”
Lewis was the youngest member of the Big Six as head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or SNCC. The group also included Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose daughter, Rev. Bernice King, the first woman to lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, connected his legacy to Height’s during a rousing tribute.
As recently as February, Height was the only woman scheduled to attend a meeting with President Barack Obama, Sharpton and other male leaders at the White House. Because of a snowstorm, she was unable to make it, but Sharpton told the audience how she put up a fight to get there, telling him “I don’t trust you fellas meeting.” The crowd roared in laughter.
When faced with a problem, Hillary Clinton said, “she never stewed; she fought to change it.”
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., noted that Height touched everyone’s life, giving many special moments to remember. “All of you think she was your friend and shared that special moment with her,” Rangel said, teasingly.
Height is also well known for her extensive hat collection, and many women at the community celebration wore hats in her honor.
“I don’t think I’ve ever given a speech in a hat before,” said Hillary Clinton, wearing a black hat with a curled-up rim and pink flower, “but this would be an appropriate occasion.”
The former president stated, “I hope you’ve got a good hat store in heaven.”