Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
Recognized as “the highest ranking woman in SCLC during most of the ’60s,” Dorothy Foreman Cotton served as director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Citizenship Education Program (CEP) at the peak of the civil rights movement, a position that situated her in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inner circle of executive staff (Cotton, 3 May 1990).
Born Dorothy Lee Foreman on June 9, 1930, Cotton spent her childhood in Goldsboro, North Carolina. After the death of her mother in 1934, she and her three sisters were raised by their father, a tobacco factory worker,. Upon graduating from high school, Cotton left for Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she paid for her tuition by working as university president Robert Prentiss Daniel’s housekeeper. When he accepted a position as president of Virginia State College in Petersburg, Virginia, Cotton transferred there to complete her undergraduate degree in English and library science. She and George J. Cotton were married shortly after graduation, before she went on to complete her master’s degree in speech therapy at Boston University.
Cotton’s involvement with the civil rights movement began in the late 1950s, when she joined Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg and met its pastor, Wyatt Tee Walker. Under his leadership she became involved in local protests targeting library segregation, and eventually became secretary of the Petersburg Improvement Association. Cotton first met King at a dinner while she was working in Petersburg, and recalls that he had “some intangible magnetic quality.… That something that made people want to be with him … because he had a way of really being with you when he was with you” (Cotton, 3 May 1990).
In 1960, when King invited Walker to come to Atlanta to serve as SCLC’s executive director, Cotton joined the organization as Walker’s administrative assistant. Her work became more focused the following year, when she became SCLC’s educational consultant. She was later promoted to education director of the CEP in 1963. Cotton described her responsibility as helping “people realize that they have within themselves the stuff it takes to bring about a new order” (Cotton, 9). She was active in teaching literacy, citizenship, and nonviolent protest tactics, and motivated others to become registered voters and active political participants. She spent much of her time with the CEP, traveling throughout the South and conducting educational programs with Andrew Young and Septima Clark.
As one of SCLC’s most important leaders, Cotton worked closely with King. In a telegram acknowledging his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, she expressed her admiration for “the seriousness and devotion with which you hold your noble charge” (Cotton, 31 January 1964). Cotton was a member of the group of close family, friends, and colleagues who accompanied King to Oslo, Norway, when he received the Nobel Prize in December 1964. Her relationship with King was not limited to SCLC work, as she pointed out that those working for the organization “were all friends as well as staff.” This friendship showed her a side of him that “was fun to be with … he was the life of the party” (Cotton, 3 May 1990).
Cotton retired from SCLC in 1972. Following her departure, she held jobs relating to public service and social action, including director of the federal Child Development/Head Start program of the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity in Birmingham, Alabama, and vice president for field operations at the King Center in Atlanta. In 1982 she accepted a position with Cornell University as their director of student activities. In the early 1990s, Cotton returned to her civil rights background and began leading seminars and workshops on leadership development and social change. In 2008, admirers of Cotton's longstanding dedication to the cause of civil rights established the Dorothy Cotton Institute in Ithaca, New York. She also received the 2010 National Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. In 2012 Cotton published memoir, If Your Back's Not Bent,recounting her leadership of the Citizenship Education Program. She died at her home on June 10, 2018.