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WASHINGTON — Recognizing his debt to her quiet perseverance, an emotional President Barack Obama eulogized Dorothy Height as a humble champion of civil rights who deserved a seat of honor in American history.
Though Height devoted decades to pursuing “a righteous cause,” Obama said she never cared about getting credit and often worked behind the scenes while the movement’s male leaders earned more attention and fame.
“What she cared about was the cause. The cause of justice, the cause of equality, the cause of opportunity, freedom’s cause,” Obama told hundreds of mourners at the Washington National Cathedral.
Height, who died in Washington last week at the age of 98, led the National Council of Negro Women for decades and marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She received two of the nation’s highest honors: the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
Progress on civil rights came slowly, Obama said, but the movement “ultimately made it possible for Michelle and me to be here as president and first lady.”
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The Obamas got to know Height during the early days of the 2008 presidential campaign. Following Obama’s victory, Height became a regular at the White House, visiting 21 times. In her final months, she took part in discussions on Obama’s health care reform effort.
In February, as a record-setting blizzard descended on Washington, Height was determined to attend a meeting of African-American leaders on unemployment, Obama said, even though she was in a wheelchair.
She wouldn’t allow “just a bunch of men” to control the meeting, the president said. When Height’s attendance became impossible because cars could not reach her snow-choked driveway, he said, she still sent a message offering her ideas.
Sitting alongside Mrs. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the service, Obama wiped tears from his eyes as he listened to tributes from Height’s close friends and family. The poet Maya Angelou offered a reading from her wheelchair.
The hundreds of mourners who came to the cathedral to remember Height marked the breadth of her influence – alongside political figures like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and comedian Bill Cosby. Many women in the crowd wore bright, colorful hats, a nod to Height’s trademark attire.
Born in Richmond, Va., in 1912, before blacks had equal rights and women could vote in every state, Height moved with her family to the Pittsburgh area when she was a child. She distinguished herself in the classroom and was accepted to Barnard College, only to be turned away because the school already had reached its quota – two – of black women. She went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New York University.
In the 1950s and 1960s, she was the leading woman helping King and other activists orchestrate the civil rights movement, often reminding the men not to underestimate their female counterparts.
Obama ordered flags to be flown at half-staff Thursday in Height’s honor.