We are gathered here today to celebrate the life, and mourn the passing, of Dr. Dorothy Height. Michelle and I didn’t know Dr. Height as well, or as long, as many of you.
But we did come to know her in the early days of my campaign. And we came to love her, as so many loved her. We came to love her stories. And we loved her smile. And we loved those hats — that she wore like a crown — regal. In the White House, she was a regular. She came by not once, not twice — 21 times she stopped by the White House.
Born in the capital of the old Confederacy, brought north by her parents as part of that great migration, Dr. Height was raised in another age, in a different America, beyond the experience of many. Jim Crow ruled the South. The Klan was on the rise — a powerful political force.
Lynching was all too often the penalty for the offense of black skin. Slaves had been freed within living memory, but too often, their children, their grandchildren remained captive, because they were denied justice and denied equality, denied opportunity, denied a chance to pursue their dreams.
Progress came from the collective effort of multiple generations of Americans. From preachers and lawyers, and thinkers and doers, men and women like Dr. Height, who took it upon themselves — often at great risk — to change this country for the better. From men like W.E.B Du Bois and A. Philip Randolph; women like Mary McLeod Bethune and Betty Friedan they’re Americans whose names we know. They are leaders whose legacies we teach. They are giants who fill our history books. Well, Dr. Dorothy Height deserves a place in this pantheon. She, too, deserves a place in our history books. She, too, deserves a place of honor in America’s memory.
Look at her body of work. Desegregating the YWCA. Laying the groundwork for integration in Mississippi. Lending pigs to poor farmers as a sustainable source of income. Strategizing with civil rights leaders, holding her own, the only woman in the room, Queen Esther to this Moses Generation — even as she led the National Council of Negro Women with vision and energy.
But we remember her not solely for all she did during the civil rights movement. We remember her for all she did over a lifetime, behind the scenes, to broaden the movement’s reach. To shine a light on stable families and tight-knit communities. To make us see the drive for civil rights and women’s rights not as a separate struggle, but as part of a larger movement to secure the rights of all humanity, regardless of gender, regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity.
It’s an unambiguous record of righteous work, worthy of remembrance, worthy of recognition. And yet, one of the ironies is, year after year, decade in, decade out, Dr. Height went about her work quietly, without fanfare, without self-promotion. She never cared about who got the credit. She didn’t need to see her picture in the papers. She understood that the movement gathered strength from the bottom up, those unheralded men and women who don’t always make it into the history books but who steadily insisted on their dignity, on their manhood and womanhood.
She wasn’t interested in credit. What she cared about was the cause. The cause of justice. The cause of equality. The cause of opportunity. Freedom’s cause.
And that willingness to subsume herself, that humility and that grace, is why we honor Dr. Dorothy Height.
The great test of a life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, is to harness that instinct; to redirect it toward advancing the greater good; toward changing a community and a country for the better; toward doing the Lord’s work.
I sometimes think Dr. King must have had Dorothy Height in mind. For Dorothy Height met the test. Dorothy Height embodied that instinct. Dorothy Height was a drum major for justice. A drum major for equality. A drum major for freedom. A drum major for service.
And the lesson she would want us to leave with today — a lesson she lived out each and every day — is that we can all be first in service. We can all be drum majors for a righteous cause. May God bless Dr. Dorothy Height and the union that she made more perfect.
Excerpted from remarks President Obama made at Washington National Cathedral for Dorothy Height.