Dorothy Cotton was the personification of the brave civil rights activist

Herb Boyd | 6/20/2018, 2:37 p.m.
In the annals of the Civil Rights Movement, there is a photo of eight stalwarts in the Southern Christian Leadership ...
Dorothy Cotton with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and SCLC members Dorothy Cotton Institute

In the annals of the Civil Rights Movement, there is a photo of eight stalwarts in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 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, N.Y. She was 88 and had been ill for some time.

Born Dorothy Lee Foreman 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 Cotton to play a lead role.

After graduation, Cotton 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, she 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, Va. at a local church pastored by Wyatt T. Walker, who would become 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 Petersburg, Dr. King shared the podium with Cotton, who read one of her poems. Dr. King was impressed with both the Rev. Walker and Cotton, and he asked Walker to come to Atlanta and to help him form the SCLC. The minister said he would only come if he could bring his two associates—Jim Wood and Cotton.

Cotton agreed to go but insisted that it would only be for three months—she stayed 23 years. Along with her duties as Walker’s administrative assistant, she was assigned by Dr. King to help the Highlander Folk School, which 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.

Cotton’s 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 the 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 the SCLC.