To A Great Height
It was a turbulent week in the world, the country and Washington. We saw a spreading oil spill and the sight of birds covered in oil. We saw grossly wealthy bankers raising their hands to testify blankly on Capitol Hill. Grief continued for a murdered teacher, the storms of heated political battles built locally over disputed school funds and nationally over immigration and financial reform.
Through all that week, the life-affirming passage of Dr. Dorothy Height, a kind of coming-out and going-up processional celebrated all over the city, steadied this community and shone the light on the best of humankind and the best kind of human being.
The life of Dr. Height, the renowned leader and champion of civil and women’s rights who passed away the previous week at the age of 98, was remembered, memorialized, and finally enshrined all week, not with great grief and sorrow, but with stories, music and warm, fond memories.
The passage took place among the gatherings of her Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters at Howard University. It took place on a day full of people who stood in long lines for a long time at the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women on Pennsylvania Avenue, the organization which Height had led with ever-increasing effectiveness and influence for decades.
The journey continued at Shiloh Baptist Church in Shaw of a Wednesday evening, where over a thousand people gathered, many of them aging figures from the civil rights movement of which Height was a critical, if often unacknowledged, member.
That night, the spirit was as big as the sound made by a huge choir, and it was proud with memories and with the presence dignitaries, from the Clintons to the King family, to local luminaries.
And finally, people filled the pillared depths of the National Cathedral for her funeral, with President Barack Obama, the brisk-walking, living fulfillment of her dreams, the first black president of the United States, delivering a eulogy, calling her “Queen Esther to this Moses generation.”
All these places comprised the world she lived in, prodded with her insistent courage, made better for African Americans, for women, for all of us, with a dignified, moving-forward persistence of will, and unchallengeable moral vision and embracing, graceful warmth. These places were signifiers of sisterhood, of calling and profession, of duty and accomplishment, and, here in Washington, of community and the home that she made here.
If the Shaw church celebration rocked with music the final stop had a more stately cadence.
The National Cathedral is the church of the nation, where, by ceremony, service and prayer, a person is certified as belonging to the ages. Not that Dorothy Height needed verification. If many Americans did not know her fully or enough, every one in the pews, front back and center, knew her, many with real memories of her.
Reverend Willie T. Barrow, chairman of the Board of the Rainbow Push Coalition in Chicago, called her “my mentor, a pioneer, she led the way for all of us. She led the way for civil rights, and women’s rights, our rights. All of us are forever in her debt, because she was there long before there was such a thing as a civil rights movement. Yes, she was.”
Virginia Williams, herself something of a pioneer in many fields, including music and being an unofficial mother for the District while her son Anthony Williams served two terms as mayor, said “she towered over everybody. She was the guiding spirit of the fight for justice.”
A woman at least two or three generations removed from Height who had worked with her said that “we all learned from her: never stop, keep on moving forward, fight hard, don’t quit. She had that fighting spirit and she had grace.”
President Obama said she was always welcome at the White House. “And she would come over. She came over twenty times.” “She was born when slavery was a living memory, and she fought for justice when nobody else did. She was humble. She didn’t care about credit. She belonged in the pantheon. ”
“She was a righteous woman,” he said.
Poet Maya Angelou recited a psalm, opera great Denyce Graves sang and the Clintons were there, as were the Cosbys, boxing promoter Don King, a portrait in flags and bling, senators, congressmen, mayors and movie stars. Her nephew, Dr. Bernard Randolph, remembered meeting her in New York where she had come to stay with their family. He recalled a stirringly gifted young girl and was admonished to be “at our best behavior” for Miss Dorothy.
It was a bright sunlight, stately morning, and it was as if Dorothy Height, with all her long life done, had come into the light of glory for all of us, revealed for all the things she had done in her life, for all to see. The moment might have been when gospel legend BeBe Winans moved through “Jacob’s Ladder” as if it was lament and salve, all at once: “After you’ve done all you can … you plant your feet, and square your shoulders, hold your head up and wait on him,” he sang. “After you’ve done all you can, you just stand.”
It’s what Dorothy Height did all her life, squared her shoulders, stood up.
At the end, everybody stood, and there was this sea of hats. Glorious hats.
Purple, black, large and round, imposing or flirtatious. There was a movement of sisters in hats of all colors, feathery and strong all the same at once, exiting down the stairs, some to touch the funeral car, walking past a prophetlike Dick Gregory, out into the sunlight. You could hear women’s voices, girl’s voices and hats, standing on the street corner and at bus stops, young and old, talking about Dorothy Height come to glory, looking forward.