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The Unheralded Legacy of Civil Rights Leader Dorothy Cotton

The late activist helped organize the Birmingham marches and educated the disenfranchised about their constitutional rights

(Cornell University)
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Martin Luther King, Jr. was a focal point of the Civil Rights Movement, and as the decades pass his legacy only looms larger. But King was just the most public face of a movement that involved countless extraordinary people, including Dorothy Cotton, who died at the age of 88 in Ithaca, New York, on Sunday.

Harrison Smith at The Washington Post reports that Cotton was the longtime education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which organized many of the marches and protest actions around the American South in the early 1960s.

For 12 years, Camila Domonoske at NPR writes, Cotton developed and implemented the SCLC citizenship education program, a monthly five-day training that ultimately helped thousands of disenfranchised African-Americans learn about their constitutional voting rights, which primed them for leadership and action, such as organizing marches, sit-ins, registration drives or other types of demonstrations.

“The CEP helped ordinary people identify what was intolerable in their circumstances, envision the changes they desired, learn their civil rights, prepare for democratic engagement, and craft courageous strategies for organizing communities and speaking truth to power,” explains the Dorothy Cotton Institute (DCI), a nonprofit that Cotton and a select group of colleagues first thought up in 2007 to continue her legacy.

Domonoske points out that Cotton was a rarity in the Civil Rights movement: a woman with a prominent role. She was part of King’s inner circle and the only women on the SCLC executive staff. She was empowered to make decisions that affected the course of the movement. She led marches and faced violence in places like St. Augustine, Florida. She was also one of the key organizers of the 1963 marches in Birmingham, Alabama, reports Greg Garrison at AL.com.

The civil rights leader is also often credited for bringing children into the marches, teaching them the basics of nonviolent protest at the 16th Street Baptist Church. When those children were attacked by police dogs and sprayed with firehoses in front of television cameras, it laid bare the true brutality of the Jim Crow apartheid system to much of white America.

“All of the women [in the Civil Rights Movement] got shortchanged,” Andrew Young, former SCLC executive and later mayor of Atlanta tells Ernie Suggs at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Dorothy Height didn’t speak at the March on Washington, although she was one of the organizers.” He cites the late Civil Rights pioneer Amelia Boynton, who started her activism in 1929 and continued the fight for 80 years before retiring in 2009, as another less-remembered figure of the movement. “The press ignored the women and looked to preachers for everything. Dorothy resented that. She was a feminist before feminism was cool,” Young says.

Cotton wasn’t afraid to stand her ground against the male-dominated movement, Young reminisces. “I remember one meeting, Martin [Luther King Jr.] said, ‘Dorothy, get me a cup of coffee.' She said, ‘No, I won’t get you a cup of coffee.’ She was constantly rebelling against the role of being made a second-class citizen. She would tell Dr. King no all the time. So I got the coffee.”

She was also one of the popularizers of Freedom Songs, the spiritual and folk songs adopted as anthems by the Civil Rights Movement. She insisted on starting and ending every meeting or protest with a song or two.

After King’s death, Cotton remained with the SCLC and helped establish the King Center in Atlanta. Between 1982 and 1991 she served as the director of student activities at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. In 2010, DCI was formally established, a place that trains and fosters people working for human rights and social transformation across the globe.

Throughout her life she continued to speak about King and the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, pushing people to continue the work the movement started. “We love Dr. King. I love Dr. King, but it was not Dr. King's movement. He did not start the civil rights movement. It was started by one person here, one person there, one person over here," she said at a 2013 conference at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Birmingham, reports Garrison. “If you see something wrong, sometimes you may have to start an action all by yourself. One person sees something wrong and starts doing something about it. People will join you if you do it with the right spirit.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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