Dorothy Height: Leading lady of US civil rights movement

The American civil rights campaigner Dorothy Height, who shared the stage with Martin Luther King when he gave his famous "I have a dream" speech in 1963, has died aged 98.

A distinctive figure in her trademark hats co-ordinated with her colourful outfits, the American civil rights campaigner Dorothy Height shared the stage with Martin Luther King when he gave his famous "I have a dream" speech in 1963 and led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years. One of the leading figures helping Mr King orchestrate the civil rights movement in America in the 1950s and 60s, Height was the sole woman to stand beside the "Big Six" leaders. Although never called upon to speak onstage, she had a solid stock of apposite comments, which included: "If the time is not right, we have to ripen the time."

Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1912, when to be both female and black were considerable hurdles to progress, Height was denied enrolment at Barnard College, despite qualifying academically, as the school had already reached its quota of two black women. She overcame the chronic asthma of her childhood to earn bachelor's and master's degrees from New York University and spent her life campaigning for rights for women and African-Americans.

A leader of the Harlem Young Women's Christian Association and the United Christian Movement of North America, she called for an end to lynching and the reform of the criminal justice system. She gave testimony before the New York city council on the subject of the exploitation of black women employed in domestic service, describing the "slave markets" where white suburban housewives drove through the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx looking for cheap labour.

While working at the YMCA, she was chosen by Eleanor Roosevelt to spend a weekend at her New York home to prepare for a World Youth Conference at Vassar College in 1938. Escorting the first lady to a meeting of the National Council of Negro Women, Height met the council's founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, who would become her mentor. Later, as president of the council, she introduced a number of social programmes in the Deep South and called for racial desegregation across the board, from the armed services to clubs to local swimming pools.

In 1986 in Washington, Height instituted the first "Black Family Reunion". A social gathering devoted to the history, culture and traditions of African-Americans, it proved so popular it spread to cities across the country. In 1994, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2004, the Congressional Gold Medal. That same year, 75 years after turning her away, Barnard College designated Height an honorary graduate.

Dorothy Irene Height was born on March 24, 1912 and died on April 20. * The National