In the annals of the civil rights movement there is a photo of eight stalwarts in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, including Dr. King, Andrew Young, James Bevel, and Hosea Williams, only one of them is a woman — Dorothy Cotton. She is smiling next to Dr. King in the photo, a position she often assumed as an aide to the leader as she established her own iconic role in the movement.
A fearless advocate for the dispossessed, Cotton died June 10 at a retirement center in Ithaca, NY. She was 88 and had been ill for some time.
Born Dorothy Lee Foreman on Jan. 5, 1930 in Goldsboro, N.C., she was raised by her father, a tobacco factory worker, after her mother died. The relief she later found from the relentless chores of farming occurred in high school when she fell under the spell of Rosa Gray, an English teacher. Gray was also the director of the school’s theater program and often chose Dorothy to play a lead role.
After graduation, Dorothy attended Shaw University, largely as a result of Gray’s guidance and influence. There, like her mentor, she immersed herself in the study of English. When she wasn’t in the classroom, Dorothy was holding down two part times jobs, one in the cafeteria and the other cleaning the teachers’ dormitory. She would subsequently become the personal housekeeper for the president of Virginia State University.
It was at Virginia State that she met her husband George Cotton, and after graduating they were married in the president’s home. In 1960, she earned her master’s degree in Speech Therapy from Boston University. Her civil rights activism began in Petersburg at a local church pastored by Wyatt T. Walker, who would be one of Dr. King’s major lieutenants. He was also a leader of the regional NAACP. Walker recruited her to train the children in picketing and how to conduct themselves during demonstrations and marches.
During an appearance in Petersburgh, Dr. King shared the podium with Dorothy who read one of her poems. Dr. King was impressed with both Rev. Walker and Dorothy, and after he asked Walker to come to Atlanta and to help him form SCLC; the minister said he would only come if he could bring his two associates—Jim Wood and Dorothy.
Dorothy agreed to go but insisted that it would only be for three months—she ended up staying 23 years. Along with her duties as Walker’s administrative assistant, Dr. King assigned her to help the Highlander Folk School that was enduring a lot of bad publicity. In this context she met the formidable Septima Clark and together they worked on the Citizenship Education Program.
Her commitment and tireless devotion to the movement made her indispensable and she relished every moment. “Our work with SCLC was not just a job, it was a life commitment,” she said in her autobiography.
But it was her period with SCLC that made her one of the most dedicated civil rights activists of the era, particularly her close association with Dr. King and other members of the organization. And the training she did with Walker in Petersburg was applied with a similar vigor and results at SCLC.
Joseph Rosenbloom in his book Redemption that chronicled the last 31 hours and twenty-eight minutes of Dr. King’s life, there is extensive coverage of Dorothy and how instrumental she was in carrying out Dr. King’s orders in Memphis where he hoped to duplicate what they had done in Birmingham in 1963. Dorothy had played a decisive role in preparing the children for the encounter in Birmingham and Children’s Crusade.
But Dr. King, caught in the throes of the chaos in Memphis failed to keep an appointment with Dorothy and she was peeved. So much so that they argued and she left Memphis. Later, in her memoir, she explained the incident saying she had a meeting in Atlanta. Dr. King was killed the next day.
Dorothy disclosed some of the turmoil and discrimination she received as a woman in the movement and the difficulty she had convincing Black people to break out of their sense of inferiority in an interview with NPR. “People had to … un-brainwash themselves because this sense of being less than other people was so hardwired into the culture, into the psyche of black people. And what was hardwired into psyche of white people was a sense of superiority,” she said. “While all of that had to be torn down, that still does not mean that we have reached the Promised Land. It means that we have put some more cracks in that wall of segregation, separation, American-style apartheid.”
No one can claim that Dorothy didn’t give her all in the fight to end racism, injustice, and oppression. And it would remiss not to mention what a lovely voice she had and it often could be heard soaring in a gospel choir.