Speaking to hundreds of mourners in the stately Washington National Cathedral, Obama recounted Height's commitment to the cause during decades of work, mostly behind the scenes while the movement's male leaders earned more attention and fame.
"She never cared about who got the credit," the president said. "What she cared about was the cause. The cause of justice, the cause of equality, the cause of opportunity, freedom's cause."
His 13-minute tribute often drew gentle laughter as Obama remembered Height's doggedness and energy. Height, who died last week at age 98, led the National Council of Negro Women for decades and marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Height visited the Obama White House 21 times, the president said. He noted that she was determined to attend a meeting of African-American leaders on unemployment last winter even though she was in a wheelchair and a blizzard was approaching.
She wouldn't allow "just a bunch of men" to control the meeting, Obama said. When Height's attendance became impossible because cars could not reach her snow-choked driveway, he said, she still sent a message with her ideas.
Noting Height's trademark attire, Obama said, "we loved those hats she wore like a crown. Regal."
He cited her role in desegregating the YWCA and in leading the National Council of Negro Women with "vision and energy, vision and class." He said her name should be associated with great leaders such as King and W.E.B. DuBois.
"She too deserves a place in our history books," Obama said. "She too deserves a place of honor in America's memory."
He urged Americans to honor Height's memory by serving their country and making it better. "We can all be drum majors for a righteous cause," the president said.
Others were spoke at the service included poet and author Maya Angelou and former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman. Opera singer Denyce Graves performed for the audience, which included first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.