Courtesy of the University

Dorothy Cotton, who died earlier this month, speaks about the civil rights movement in the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture in Sage Chapel in 2007.

June 23, 2018

Dorothy Cotton, Civil Rights Activist and Former Cornell Employee, Dies at 88

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Dorothy Cotton, a staunch civil rights activist and a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr., passed away on June 10 at age 88 at the Kendal retirement community in Ithaca.

Cotton was the highest-ranking female in King’s close circle of confidantes as well as the Education Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a key organization within the civil rights movement.

Cotton earned her bachelor’s degree in English and library science from Virginia State College in Petersburg in 1955 and earned her master’s in speech therapy from Boston University in 1960.

From 1982 to 1991 Cotton worked as the director of student activities at Cornell University. She gave the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture at Cornell in February 2007, according to a University press release.

“Many people associate the civil rights movement with great suffering and sadness. However from another perspective, that earth-changing movement gave millions a new reason to live,” Cotton said at that event.

Cotton felt very strongly about the racial injustices of the time, and had a strong desire to help change the status quo, according to her close friend Prof. Baruch Whitehead, music education, Ithaca College.

“It was a very dangerous time during the civil rights movement. She was threatened, and she was beaten, but she believed in the power of non-violence and the power to take [non-violent protest] throughout the world to make social change,” Whitehead told The Sun.

Cotton first met King while she was still studying at VSC. She was involved in several demonstrations organized through a local church, where King was invited to give a speech.

Cotton accompanied church leader Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker and King to Atlanta for the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King was the first president of the SCLC, and Cotton spent 12 years there as the conference’s education director.

As the SCLC’s education director, Cotton worked to spread awareness for the movement and helped pen King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

“Through her work as Education Director of the SCLC, and leader of the Citizenship Education Program, she inspired and equipped literally thousands of community organizers and activists throughout the southern states,” wrote Laura Branca, a senior fellow at the Dorothy Cotton Institute, in an email to The Sun.

Cotton was staying in the hotel room next door to Dr. King’s on the day he was assassinated, the New York Times reported. Cotton left the SCLC three years after King’s assassination in 1968, according to the Dorothy Cotton Institute’s website.

In 2007, Cotton and a group of friends and colleagues founded the Dorothy Cotton Institute in Ithaca, to “offer popular education and training to inspire and support people who want to foster and protect human rights and to advance civic participation for social transformation”, according to the Institute’s website.

Branca said that Cotton felt strongly that the principles of nonviolence needed to be a “way of life” rather than a strategy or tactic in a campaign and that she was willing to put herself at “great risk” to take a stand.

Branca, who worked closely with Cotton at the institute, also fondly recalled Cotton’s love of engaging with others through singing and breaking bread together.

“Ms. Cotton had a great curiosity and a lively mind, and was an avid reader and a life-long learner,” Branca said. “She was engaging, charismatic, interested, and enjoyed conversation and an exchange of ideas.”

Whitehead founded a music group almost ten years ago, the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, to honor Cotton’s love for music and her legacy.

“I wanted to preserve her legacy through song and social justice. Our mission is to be proactive in social changes and use music to bring people together,” Whitehead told The Sun.

“I think she will not be forgotten,” he continued, citing Cotton’s influence on the civil rights movement and the archives in the Smithsonian documenting her efforts. “She will be a person who will be remembered for doing good and helping a lot of people.”

“Dorothy Cotton inspired many at Cornell and in the greater Ithaca area through her tireless work in the civil rights movement and as an advocate for diversity and inclusion,” said President Martha E. Pollack in a University press release. “With her passing, our community has lost a powerful role model and a dear friend, who devoted her life to creating a more just and equitable world.”