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Activist Dorothy Height mourned by nation
Question of the Day
Human-rights advocate Dorothy Irene Height was laid to rest Thursday after a morning service at the Washington National Cathedral that drew President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, celebrities such as Camille and Bill Cosby, and ordinary people from all walks of life.
The sanctuary of the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, the official name of the church, was filled with hundreds of mourners who said they came to simply say "thank you" to Miss Height, whose lifelong advocacy fused civil rights with women's rights, and family values with self-help.
Miss Height, president emerita and longtime leader of the National Council of Negro Women, died April 20 at Howard University Hospital at age 98. She began her life's journey as a young Christian advocate and never wavered, said speakers at the funeral service.
Before the service officially began, the stories that were bandied by the attendees were as vibrant and varied as the cathedral's stained-glass windows. One man called Miss Height "my hero."
An Army specialist, who soon will deploy to Iraq, sat her daughter on her lap and began explaining Miss Height's storied travels to Mississippi, Alabama, Chicago, Africa, Europe and elsewhere. "I wanna go," the little girl said. "Maybe when I get back from Iraq," the mother said.
The service reflected Miss Height, who was forceful and humorous, sobering and dignified.
Members of Miss Height's sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, arrived by the busloads. Other mourners began arriving as early as 5 a.m.
"I'm giving back," said Debra Gill-Mason of Leland, N.C., who was aided by Miss Height while she was a student at Purdue University.
Miss Height had come to the school to inspire students, and word traveled to Miss Height that Ms. Gill-Mason had just lost her grandmother and her shaky finances had the young student considering dropping out. But Miss Height, to Ms. Gill-Mason's surprise, raised money, food and other provisions.
"I took the train because I couldn't get a flight," she said. "I had to represent my family, my family from the West Coast, and my family in Chicago."
Close friends such as Mrs. Cosby and Maya Angelou, who spoke at the service, sat in reserved seating, while average citizens sat among a who's who of black America dating back to the 1960s.
At the front row, with heads bowed before Miss Height's casket, sat the very top of America's political leadership - the Obamas, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Rep. John Lewis, who stood with Miss Height and others as Martin Luther King delivered his historic "I Have A Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963, mingled with mourners near the vestibule and obliged several women who asked him to pose with them for photographs.
Mr. Obama brought levity to the service when, during his eulogy, he touched on Miss Height's perseverance by remarking she was a White House "regular." She came by "not once, not twice - 21 times she stopped by the White House," he said.
He sparked laughter and hearty applause when reminisced about how the February blizzard prohibited Miss Height, who needed a wheelchair to get around late in life, from attending a meeting with black leaders at the White House. Miss Height sent the president a message anyway, because she "was not about to let just a bunch of men in this meeting."
Attendees joined in the Sunday School favorite "This Little Light of Mine," as clergy, pallbearers and family led the funeral procession.
Some mourners, who already had begun gathering outside, thought it interesting that people who weren't particularly keen on women being involved in the movement were now paying homage to Miss Height. "Not everybody wanted women on the frontlines," said Dr. Alyce Gullattee, a psychiatrist at Howard University School of Medicine.
D.C. Council member David Catania said the service reflected Miss Height - "a model for young men and women, and mentor of many."
His remarks were overheard by a gaggle of young men and women trying to decide whether to attend the burial at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Md.
As they all looked at the scores of people still pouring from the church - "Look, there's Dick Gregory," one of the men said - one of the young women remarked that everyone minded their "p's and q's" while inside the church. Then another said the comportment didn't necessarily reflect churchgoing behavior. "Nah," she said, "Dr. Height was watching us."
About the Author
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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