Apr 30, 2010

THE PRESIDENT:  Please be seated.  Let me begin by saying a word to Dr. Dorothy Height's sister, Ms. Aldridge.  To some, she was a mentor.  To all, she was a friend.  But to you, she was family, and my family offers yours our sympathy for your loss. 

We are gathered here today to celebrate the life, and mourn the passing, of Dr. Dorothy Height.  It is fitting that we do so here, in our National Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.  Here, in a place of great honor.  Here, in the House of God.  Surrounded by the love of family and of friends.  The love in this sanctuary is a testament to a life lived righteously; a life that lifted other lives; a life that changed this country for the better over the course of nearly one century here on Earth. 

Michelle and I didn't know Dr. Height as well, or as long, as many of you.  We were reminded during a previous moment in the service, when you have a nephew who's 88 -- (laughter) -- you've lived a full life.  (Applause.) 

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 -- (laughter) -- 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.  (Laughter and applause.)  Took part in our discussions around health care reform in her final months.  

Last February, I was scheduled to see her and other civil rights leaders to discuss the pressing problems of unemployment -- Reverend Sharpton, Ben Jealous of the NAACP, Marc Morial of the National Urban League.  Then we discovered that Washington was about to be blanketed by the worst blizzard in record -- two feet of snow. 

So I suggested to one of my aides, we should call   Dr. Height and say we're happy to reschedule the meeting.  Certainly if the others come, she should not feel obliged. True to form, Dr. Height insisted on coming, despite the blizzard, never mind that she was in a wheelchair.  She was not about to let just a bunch of men -- (laughter) -- in this meeting.  (Applause.)  It was only when the car literally could not get to her driveway that she reluctantly decided to stay home.  But she still sent a message -- (laughter) -- about what needed to be done. 

And I tell that story partly because it brings a smile to my face, but also because it captures the quiet, dogged, dignified persistence that all of us who loved Dr. Height came to know so well -- an attribute that we understand she learned early on. 

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.  It's hard to imagine, I think, life in the first decades of that last century when the elderly woman that we knew was only a girl.  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. 

The progress that followed -- progress that so many of you helped to achieve, progress that ultimately made it possible for Michelle and me to be here as President and First Lady -- that progress came slowly.  (Applause.)

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.  (Applause.)  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 on Wednesdays 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 -- (applause) -- with vision and energy, vision and class. 
 

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