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Remembering Dorothy Foreman Cotton (June 9, 1930 - June 10, 2018)

Dorothy Foreman Cotton, a prominent veteran leader in the human rights movement and a frequent visitor to the King Institute, passed away on June 10th, 2018 in her home at Ithaca, New York. Throughout the 1960s, Cotton was the highest-ranking female member in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), directing the group’s Citizenship Education Program (CEP) at the peak of the Southern civil rights struggle. She held a position in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inner circle of executive staff. In December of 1964, Cotton was part of the entourage that traveled to Oslo, Norway to celebrate King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Cotton was an avid advocate of the notion that movements are built not by leaders but by those at the bottom, at the grassroots level. As she wrote in her 2012 memoir, If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement,King emerged out of a movement beyond the control of any one leader:

. . . his voice was heard explaining, challenging, teaching, justifying protest actions— but he did not start the actions. The people were energized; the people acted. He did not tell Rosa Parks to keep her seat; he did not tell the four students in Greensboro, North Carolina, to take seats at the Woolworth’s lunch counter where Black people were not allowed to sit (though we could shop at every other counter in the store). He did not tell Fannie Lou Hamer and Annie Devine to demand the right to vote in the Mississippi Delta. He did not tell the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth to take his bold action in Birmingham, Alabama, which was the catalyst for a hotbed of protest action and is still talked about around the world. 

Born Dorothy Lee Foreman in 1930, Cotton spent her childhood in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where she and her three sisters were raised by their father, a tobacco factory worker, after the death of their mother in 1934. 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 married George J. Cotton shortly after graduation before going on to complete her master’s degree in speech therapy at Boston University.

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. Later, she was promoted to be the 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." Actively teaching literacy, citizenship, and nonviolent protest tactics, Cotton 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 established a close relationship with King. In a telegram acknowledging his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, she expressed her admiration for “the seriousness and devotion with whichyou hold your noble charge” 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”

As the sole female SCLC administrator, Dorothy Cotton often spoke candidly about the difficulties she faced dealing with the strong egos of the male ministers who dominated the organization. Ultimately, she gained their admiration and respect through her success in training local movement leaders, who were themseles often female. As her SCLC colleague Andrew Young recalled:

Dorothy assumed a very natural role as everybody’s sister. The men began to relate to one another through her. The precise enunciation and elocution of her speech demanded that her opinions earn respect. Her charm and effusive personality inspired admiration and also kept potential male admirers at bay; her quick wit crushed many egos.

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 the 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. She later became a founding member of the National Citizenship School, devoted to teaching the skills of creating publicly accountable institutions reflecting democratic ideals. During the 1990s, her many admirers established the Dorothy Cotton Institute in Ithaca, New York, to promote the cause for human rights. Most recently in 2012, Cotton published a memoir If Your Back's Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement, in which she documented the cruciality of finding power at the grassroots level. She captured the power of extraodinary teachers who reminded ordinary people that they could and should take action in the struggle against racial oppression.