Washington (CNN) — Some of the most powerful leaders in American politics came together Thursday to remember Dorothy Height, a woman who dedicated her life to civil rights and justice for the least powerful members of society.
President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder led mourners at a memorial service for Height at a packed National Cathedral.
Height, a civil rights pioneer, died last week at the age of 98. She had been chair and president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women and worked alongside civil rights leaders including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., future U.S. Rep. John Lewis and A. Philip Randolph.
She was on the platform when King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington.
Height’s life was an “unambiguous record of righteous work,” Obama said in the service’s eulogy.
She “deserves a place of honor in America’s memory.” She was a woman of “quiet, dogged, dignified persistence.”
Height was born in an era when “Jim Crow ruled the South (and) the Klan was on the rise,” Obama said. “Progress came slowly. That progress came from the collective efforts of multiple generations of Americans. … Men and women like Dr. Height took it upon themselves — often at great risk — to change this country for the better.”
“May God bless Dorothy Height and the union that she made more perfect,” he said.
Mourners at the service participated in renditions of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the gospel song “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”
Referred to as the “godmother” of the civil rights movement, Height was at the center of countless heated debates over social justice in a changing country beginning in the early days of President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.
Among other awards, Height received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 from President Clinton and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
Height led the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1988, when she became the group’s chair and president emeritus. She was also a key figure in the YWCA beginning in the 1930s.
Height was born in Richmond, Virginia, and grew up in Rankin, Pennsylvania. Her civil rights work began in 1933 when she became a leader of the United Christian Youth Movement of North America. She fought to stop lynchings and worked to desegregate the armed forces.
Under Height’s leadership, the council worked to help women and low-income families by promoting programs to alleviate hunger and build more affordable housing. The organization also spearheaded voter registration drives and started “Wednesdays in Mississippi” in which female interracial groups helped at Freedom Schools, institutions meant to empower African-Americans and address inequalities in how the races were educated.
She experienced personal discrimination, writing in her memoir about being rejected from New York’s Barnard College because she was black.
“Although I had been accepted, they could not admit me,” she wrote in “Open Wide the Freedom Gates.”
“It took me a while to realize that their decision was a racial matter: Barnard had a quota of two Negro students per year, and two others had already taken the spots.”
At its 1980 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College awarded Height its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction.