5:00 P.M. EST April 20, 2010
Dorothy Height was a leading voice for human and civil rights and an
active member for many years at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in
New York. A UMNS file photo by John C. Goodwin.
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When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream”
speech in 1963, Dorothy Height was the only woman, besides Mrs. King,
invited onto the platform.
When Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation’s first African-American
president 46 years later, she was invited onto the platform once again.
“This is real recognition that civil rights was not just what Dr.
King dreamed,” she told The New York Times about Obama’s inauguration.
“But it took a lot of people a lot of work to make this happen, and they
feel part of it.”
Height, a United Methodist who worked tirelessly on behalf of civil
rights and equality for women, was one of those people. She died April
20 at Howard University Hospital in Washington at the age of 98.
Blazing the trail
Retired United Methodist Bishop Violet Fisher, 70, said Height was
“the queen mother of the civil rights movement,” someone who helped
blaze the trail for women like herself.
“I celebrate her heart for justice and mercy and her ability to walk
humbly with God,” Fisher declared. “Thanks be to God that she opened the
doors, especially to African-American women. I am so grateful that she
did not leave the Methodist movement.”
A colleague of King, an adviser to presidents and a friend of Eleanor
Roosevelt, Height spent 33 years on the national board of the YWCA and
more than 40 years at the helm of the National Council of Negro Women.
She was honored by three U.S. presidents, receiving the Presidential
Citizenship Medal from Ronald Reagan in 1989, the Presidential Medal of
Freedom from Bill Clinton in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal from
George W. Bush in 2004.
She was so defined by her stylish hats that a dramatization of her
life story, commissioned and performed at Howard University, was
entitled “If This Hat Could Talk.” She acquired 36 honorary doctorate
degrees and countless awards.
But public recognition of her contribution to the civil rights
movement was late in coming.
“As a woman, she was often unnamed, but she was always in the
photographs when the civil rights leadership visited the White House,”
recalled Peggy Billings. Billings was working for the Women’s Division,
United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, when she first met Height
in the 1960s.
Height was a brilliant strategist. “She had an incredible capacity
for finding solutions and consensus in a group,” Billings said. “It was a
great gift of hers.”
Commitment to church
Born on March 24, 1912, Dorothy Irene Height grew up in Rankin, Pa.,
where her parents were involved in the Baptist church. “As a child I
joined the church, and then I became very active in all of the
children’s missions—the choir, the Sunday school, every aspect of the
church—so that my earliest grounding came in the church,” she said
during an interview with United Methodist Communications in 2005.
Dorothy Height, circa 1966. A UMNS photo courtesy of the General
Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church.
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As a college student in New York, she began attending St. Mark’s
Methodist Church, leading to her longtime affiliation with The United
Methodist Church. That faith, which she attributed to helping her
develop a strong sense of self-reliance, stayed with her throughout her
“I find through meditation and prayer that there are very few things
that I do not find some way to deal with,” she said.
Her mentor in the Methodist Church was Mary McLeod Bethune, a
Methodist laywoman who started United Methodist-related Bethune-Cookman
College in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women—an umbrella
organization of civic, church, educational, labor, community and
professional groups—and brought Height into the fold.
During the 1960s, as the council’s president, Height helped organize
voter registration in the South, voter education in the North and
scholarship programs for student civil rights workers. She also tackled
issues of poverty as her organization supported free school breakfasts
for children, promoted community gardens and advocated for improved
Theressa Hoover, a friend and former top staff executive of the
Women’s Division, remembered in an earlier interview how Height traveled
throughout the South—especially Mississippi—to advocate for women’s
“Dorothy carried members of the (Women’s Division) nominating
committee to meetings of the National Council of Negro Women so we would
know what United Methodist Women were doing through social action,”
Inspiration to younger women
Her passion for racial and gender equality inspired younger women.
She helped organize the women’s caucus in the National Council of
Churches in the 1970s.
Mia Adjali, a retired Women’s Division staff member, has never
forgotten the first time she met Height during an assembly of the World
Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women in Ireland a few
“Her presentation was about women and power,” Adjali recalled. “I had
probably never really dealt with that concept, of women actually not
being afraid of acquiring power or discovering how important it might be
to move women towards an equality with men.”
Lois Dauway, who has worked with both United Methodist and ecumenical
organizations, said she has counted herself fortunate to “sit at the
feet” of the civil rights icon who displayed wisdom and courage in
addressing both civil rights and gender justice.
United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, who called her “one of a
kind,” remembered Height’s significant contributions as an advocate for
women and her work as founder of the Black Family Reunion, which brings
black families together for fellowship and empowerment.
“She was not afraid to speak truth to power, but she did it in a very
gentle but persuasive fashion,” he said.
Champion of church unity
Height also was considered a champion of church unity.
"We in the church will never forget the essential role her faith
played in motivating her lifelong quest on behalf of persons of all
ages, races and ethnicities,” said the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, top
executive of the National Council of Churches. “She knew that persons of
faith can be an irresistible force for justice when we join hearts and
hands, and she was a leader in that march throughout most of our
Advancing age did not seem to slow her quest for justice. “I just
keep feeling that social justice is not some kind of utopia, I think
it’s a positive reality, and we have to work at it,” she said in 2005.
The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race took note of her
continuing contributions to American society, celebrating “the
indomitable, faith-filled spirit that led Miss Height to pursue the goal
of human rights for all people, even as she approached the century
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.