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Obama honors civil rights icon

From NBC's Athena Jones
WASHINGTON -- Calling hers "an unambiguous record of righteous work" that was worthy of recognition, President Obama honored legendary civil rights activist Dr. Dorothy Height at a moving service here today.

The president joined members of Congress, Jesse Jackson, the actor Bill Cosby and others at the National Cathedral to pay homage to Height who died last week at age 98. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid shared a pew in the packed church.

At one point early in the ceremony, as the choir sang, the president wiped away a tear.

"Look at her body of work," Obama said of Height. "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."

The president has spoken of his own generation as the Joshua generation, the one where the work of Moses bore fruit. At today's service, he talked about what it must have been like for Height growing up in the era of Jim Crow, when black people were robbed of the chance to pursue their dreams, and spoke of the hard-fought struggle for equality.

"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," he said, as the crowd applauded. "That progress came from the collective efforts of multiple generations of Americans: 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."

Height, who was president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) at the time of her death, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. A key figure throughout the Civil Rights Movement, Height headed the NCNW from 1957 to 1998, fighting for housing programs and leading voter registration drives, according to the group's website. She was on stage at the 1963 March on Washington when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

The Richmond, Va.,-born activist fought to prevent lynching, desegregate the armed forces, reform the criminal justice system and allow free access to public accommodations, according to a statement released upon her death by Howard University Hospital spokesperson Ron Harris. In 1938, Height was one of 10 youth invited to spend the weekend with Eleanor Roosevelt at her Hyde Park, N.Y., home to prepare for the World Youth Conference.

Height visited the White House 21 times since Obama took office, the president said, including for an event in January when he hosted a conversation with a small group of African-American seniors and their grandchildren on the legacy of the civil rights movement and afterward showed the group a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation -- which freed the slaves -- hanging in the Oval Office, on loan from the National Archives

Throughout the service, the choir and organist played gospel greats and popular African-American anthems from Lift Every Voice and Sing to We are Climbing Jacob's Ladder, to Great is Thy Faithfulness and This Little Light of Mine.

Dr. Camille Cosby spoke about the challenge Height sometimes faced as a woman in the Civil Rights Movement.

"She was immersed in fighting against our nation's evil 'isms": racism, sexism, classism and ageism," Cosby said. "Speaking of ageism, when she became an elder, Dorothy Height again refused to be pushed into the background. Just as she had done in the 1950s and 60s in her counteraction to sexism, Dr. Height showed us that our lives are always worthy and that a long life must be acknowledged and honored."

The president also talked about Height's drive for both civil rights and women's rights "not as a separate struggle, but as part of a larger movement to secure the rights of all humanity, regardless of gender, regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity."

Former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman spoke emotionally about Height's final days and the poet and author Maya Angelou read from the book of Psalms.