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Civil Rights Legend Dorothy Height Celebrates A Birthday

ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we hear your comments from this week in our Backtalk segment. And it was a good week, and our listeners had a lot to say.

But first, we want to wish Dorothy Height a speedy recovery and a happy and slightly belated birthday. She turned 98 on Wednesday. Ms. Height, the current chair and president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women was hospitalized this week. All reports indicate that her condition was stable, but serious.

The magnetic and charming Dorothy Height is an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. Although her contributions to the battle for racial equality haven't always been given the prominence offered some of her male contemporaries, including Georgia Congressman John Lewis, and the late Dr. Martin Luther King.

In her 90-plus years of life, Ms. Height has been a witness to this nation's history. She stood arms length away from Dr. King when he gave his famous I have a dream speech.

Dr. DOROTHY HEIGHT (President Emerita, National Council of Negro Women): Well, you certainly had a feeling that this was a unique speech. There was no way that you could have been there without and you looked out and saw not a blade of grass, people everywhere and everybody all quarter of a million people, all of them seeming like having the same kind of heartbeat, there was no way to avoid thinking that this that you were a part of history.

KEYES: Dorothy Height has worked with women and for women all of her life. She served on the national board at the YWCA. She was president of one of the largest private nonprofit organizations: Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated. And Dorothy Height has spent nearly 40 years with the National Council of Negro Women.

She spent her life battling for the rights of African-Americans as well. In 2008, she was thrilled when Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for president. But she was elated when President Barack Obama won. Dr. Height spoke to this program just after President Obama's inauguration. We asked what words of wisdom she wanted to share with those who weren't alive during the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. HEIGHT: I like to say to young people today, you are the beneficiaries of what a lot of people worked and gave their lives for. And you are enjoying things, no matter how bad it may seem, you are still better off than many of those who were keeping the (unintelligible) going. And the important thing now is not to go in alone on your own by yourself, but see how you will join with others. Get organized, and how you will serve others, and how you will help to move this forward.

KEYES: Dorothy Height, in her signature suit and stylish hat, had a place of honor at the podium the day President Obama was sworn into office, a day she never thought she'd see.

Happy 98th birthday, Dr. Height. We (unintelligible) in your honor this week, and we hope you get better soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.