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SIMMONS: Dorothy Height, a gentle warrior

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Dorothy Irene Height. Age 98. Gone on to glory. She was many things to many people. Far more than a civil rights leader who put her boots on the ground, she was a caretaker of humanity and a lady among women.

Visionary, bridge builder, mentor, keepsake, style maven, storyteller, humorist, historian, humanitarian, Christian, warrior, bricklayer, godmother, American. She also was a feminist, but she embraced traditional values and encouraged women young and old to tend to their families.

When Dorothy Height reached the pearly gates Tuesday after being hospitalized for several weeks, St. Peter had a longer list. After all, our time on Earth is measured not by the passing of years.

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I was blessed to have Miss Height hold my hand. The first time was as a very young journalist at The Washington Star newspaper in the 1970s, and we had many interactions throughout the decades. I had the privilege to introduce her on occasion, listen to her explain to young people why and how we must keep the faith, introduce her to my youngest daughter and dine with her as a guest of The Washington Times at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

We first met for a one-on-one interview. I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs until Miss Height told me to cut off the tape recorder and put down my pen and pad. She then reached over her desk, took both of my hands into hers and said, "Calm down. Just pretend we're having a conversation."

In the intervening years, I watched as she applied those same gentle but firm hands to such issues as teen pregnancy, housing, HIV/AIDS, entrepreneurialism and the like.

Miss Height would remind us that "never again" should we let hatred and bigotry, ignorance and naivete lead humankind down a dark mole hole of injustice, inequality and violence.

Even after her body became feeble, her mind remained sharp. A wonderful storyteller worthy of a Nobel Prize in nonfiction oratory, Miss Height could recall in great detail America's history with remarkable symmetry — regardless of audience. Yet even though she faced discrimination as a woman and as a black, she took a lessons-learned approach that was neither bitter nor spiteful. She once said fighting for what is right was her mission in life.

Born in Richmond in 1912, young Dorothy planned to attend Barnard College but couldn't because the school already had allotted its two slots for black students to other girls. When she emerged from New York University with a master's degree in educational psychology, she launched a career of service and pressed forward.

In the 1940s and during subsequent decades, she counseled Republicans and Democrats alike and built bridges during the divisive feminist movement. She was one of the few women who participated in Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's 1995 Million Man March on Washington. Her death marks the era of the so-called Big Six of the civil rights movement, and she was the only woman among them. She stood with Abraham Lincoln at her back as Martin Luther King delivered that oft-quoted speech about dreaming during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Miss Height had a penchant for purple fashion and hats. Like women nowadays who are called old-school, she held true to the adage that a man only has to be a gentleman in the presence of a lady, but a woman has to be a lady at all times.

In my favorite book of hers, "Celebrating Our Mothers' Kitchens," she pays homage to her mother, Fannie, writing in the dedication that her "gentle but firm example and words of wisdom instilled values that have sustained me through the years."

America owes serious debt and gratitude to Dorothy Irene Height, one of its own who was a giant among giants yet was never scandalous. She embraced her mission with grace and dignity. She helped open doors for the Michael S. Steeles and Barney Franks, the Oprah Winfreys and Kay Bailey Hutchisons.

May "never again" be part of her enduring legacy.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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