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Monday 5 December 2016

Dorothy Height

Black civil-rights leader had place of honour at Obama inauguration

Published 02/05/2010 | 05:00

Dorothy Height, who died on April 20, aged 98, was a prominent activist in the American civil-rights movement for more than half a century.

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From the late 1950s she led the National Council of Negro Women, which encouraged middle-class black women to support humanitarian causes and programmes of inter-racial social action.

Originally considered a moderate voice in the black liberation movement, the NCNW was already becoming more militant when Ms Height took over as its fourth president in 1957. By the 1970s she was supporting calls for a more direct approach to tackling racial injustice.

Noted for her determination and grace as well as a wry humour, she remained active and outspoken well into her 90s. In January 2009, wearing one of the conspicuous hats she invariably wore, she had a place of honour on the podium when Barack Obama was sworn in as president. In 1963 she had been seated on another platform in Washington, alongside Dr Martin Luther King as he delivered his "I have a dream" speech. Although she had been one of the event's organisers, and had been a prize-winning orator at school, she was not asked to speak.

The daughter of a builder and a nurse, Dorothy Irene Height was born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 24, 1912, before most American women could vote and when blacks had few rights. When she was four her family moved to Pennsylvania.

After winning a scholarship, she applied to Barnard College, New York City, to be told it had already filled its quota of two black women. She earned bachelors and masters degrees from New York University. For two years she was a caseworker for New York City's welfare department. In 1937 she attended an international church youth conference in Oxford, England. On her return she joined the staff of the Young Women's Christian Association in Harlem. In 1938 she gave evidence to New York City Council about what she described as a "slave market" in the Bronx and Brooklyn in which black girls would bargain with passing motorists, often white women, for a day's housework at subsistence wages.

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.

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