Dorothy Cotton, one of the preeminent leaders of the civil rights movement, spoke to a crowded Sage Chapel yesterday to commemorate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Cotton, a local resident of Ithaca for 23 years and a former director of student activities at Cornell University, was an influential leader who served on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as education director starting in 1960.
The ceremony began when Susan Murphy ’73, vice president of student and academic services, urged everyone to take up the torch of MLK and “carry forward his work.” Rev. Kenneth I. Clark, Sr. then briefly paused the lecture to unveil a plaque to commemorate the preaching engagements of both MLK Jr. and MLK Sr., who spoke at Cornell in 1960 and 1979, respectively.[img_assist|nid=21546|title=Recalling a hero|desc=Dorothy Cotton gives the keynote address during the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Ceremony in Sage Chapel yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=200|height=132]
The commemorative lecture then opened up with Cotton urging everyone to view the civil rights movement as one of enjoyment. She noted that, to the activists involved, the movement became the “reason for truly living,” something that gave meaning to all of their lives.
She spoke with emotion as she recalled how she fought for equal rights, standing up at multiple times during the speech and calling upon the entire assembly to join her in song. Still, there were also points during her speech in which she was overwhelmed with sadness and became choked up, reminiscing about the deaths of fellow activists.
Although she made sure to point out how MLK was essential to the success of the movement, she also pointed out how he was neither the founder nor the only person involved. The movement was one pushed forward by “simple, ordinary people,” with both young and old contributing to the effort.
Cotton drew parallels with the youth of today, noting how far removed people are from the civil rights movement of the 1950s. She urged the youth to become more involved, speaking of how shocked she was to learn that nearly 19% of college students polled in a recent survey on civic literacy thought that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech referred to the abolition of slaves and not civil rights. She ended by asking everyone “what can you do,” stating that all that is needed is an “alternative vision that people can embrace” to give people an initiative to make a difference.
Both local Ithacans and Cornell students were in attendance at the event, and both had strong opinions about the lecture. Tunisia Bristol ‘10, expressed doubts about how she could help to continue the civil rights movement, stating, “I’m only one person.” Gitanjali Sidhur, a local resident, echoed these feelings, stating that a lot of issues are “underground and not as pervasive now.”