WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday eulogized Dorothy Height as a history-making figure in the civil rights movement whose quiet perseverance produced gains in "a righteous cause."
Speaking to hundreds of mourners in the stately Washington National Cathedral, Obama recounted Height's commitment to the cause during decades of work, mostly behind the scenes while the movement's male leaders earned more attention and fame.
"She never cared about who got the credit," the president said. "What she cared about was the cause. The cause of justice, the cause of equality, the cause of opportunity, freedom's cause."
His 13-minute tribute often drew gentle laughter as Obama remembered Height's doggedness and energy. Height, who died last week at age 98, led the National Council of Negro Women for decades and marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Height visited the Obama White House 21 times, the president said. He noted that she was determined to attend a meeting of African-American leaders on unemployment last winter even though she was in a wheelchair and a blizzard was approaching.
She wouldn't allow "just a bunch of men" to control the meeting, Obama said. When Height's attendance became impossible because cars could not reach her snow-choked driveway, he said, she still sent a message with her ideas.
Some of the women at the cathedral wore bright hats like Height used to wear.
Noting Height's trademark attire, Obama said, "we loved those hats she wore like a crown. Regal."
Others who spoke at the service included poet and author Maya Angelou and former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman. Opera singer Denyce Graves performed for the audience, which included first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
Video: Obama honors Dorothy Height
A voice for women
Height, who led the National Council of Negro Women for decades and marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was honored for her leadership on the front lines fighting for equality, education and to ease racial tension.
A voice for women
She was a voice for women in the civil rights movement and beyond.
Height was a quietly powerful figure in Washington, meeting with every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Her activism stretched from Obama's election back to the New Deal. In recent years, she was cheered at events and easily recognizable in the colorful hats she often wore.
Born in Richmond, Va., in 1912 before women could vote and when black people had few rights, Height went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees from New York University. As a social worker in the 1930s, she worked to resolve riots in Harlem and marched in protest of lynching.
She became a leader in the YWCA, worked to desegregate public facilities and was one of 10 young people chosen by Eleanor Roosevelt to spend a weekend at the first lady's Hyde Park, N.Y., home preparing for a World Youth Conference.
Height was elected national president of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and volunteered in her 20s for the National Council of Negro Women under her mentor, Mary McLeod Bethune.
By 1957, she became head of the organization and created the National Black Family Reunion, attended by thousands since 1986 on the National Mall. She led the council to be the only historic black group with a home on Washington's symbolic Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and White House.
She stepped down in 1997, but the building still bears her name. Friends raised $5 million in 2002 to pay off the mortgage.
In a soon-to-be-published book, "Living With Purpose," Height left some advice. She writes that people should look at the world as it is becoming, rather than as it has been.
"We have to gain a recognition not only that no one stands alone, but on a positive side, that we also need each other," she wrote. "In the long run, it is how we relate to each other and how well we work together that will make the deciding difference."
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