National News

Dorothy Cotton, Rights Champion and Close Aide to King, Dies at 88

Posted June 14, 2018 10:40 p.m. EDT
Updated June 14, 2018 10:45 p.m. EDT

Dorothy Cotton, a confidante of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who was the only woman in his inner circle of aides, marched in perilous civil rights demonstrations and was a driving force in getting Southern black people to vote, died Sunday at a retirement home in Ithaca, New York. She was 88.

A friend, Bonnie Harrison, confirmed the death but did not give a cause.

A warm presence who occasionally sang spirituals to ease tensions at demonstrations, Cotton was the director of education for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference; typed his “I Have a Dream” speech in a hotel room in Washington in 1963; traveled with him when he went to Oslo, Norway, the next year to receive the Nobel Peace Prize; and was staying in a Memphis, Tennessee, motel room next to his until hours before his assassination in 1968.

“She was always an equal partner with Ralph, Andy, Jesse and Hosea,” King scholar David Garrow said in a telephone interview, referring to the King lieutenants the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Rev. Andrew Young, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Hosea Williams. “She was so valuable and helpful to Doc.”

Cotton was fearless in her adherence to King’s preachings about nonviolence, faced Ku Klux Klansman in civil rights demonstrations and was left with a lasting injury after being attacked at a protest in Florida.

Cotton arrived at the SCLC’s Atlanta offices in 1960 as the administrative assistant to the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker after he was hired as executive director of the organization. She had worked for him in Petersburg, Virginia, where he had been a pastor, and had followed him to Atlanta.

She quickly moved up to the education job, directing citizen education workshops that encouraged disenfranchised African-Americans to register to vote. The suppression of black voting by law and brute force, especially in the South, was a central part of civil rights battles in the 1950s and ′60s.

Cotton oversaw the workshops from a training center in McIntosh, Georgia. She, Young and Septima Clark, a teacher whose citizen education schools in South Carolina served as models, drove throughout the South, stopping at churches and even pool halls to recruit people to join their voting-rights campaign.

Once at the center, they were instructed in citizenship rights, black history, economic opportunity and organizing credit unions. They would then be sent back to their communities to impress on African-Americans the importance of political power and to help them register to vote, in some cases teaching them how to pass literacy tests that stood as impediments to registering. Several thousand people participated.

“I realize that people, en masse, saw the civil rights movement as just a bunch of marches,” Cotton told PBS in an interview in 2013. “I know firsthand that that’s not true. We had a major training program” designed to overcome “American-style apartheid,” she said.

Dorothy Lee Foreman was born June 9, 1930, in Goldsboro, North Carolina, about 50 miles southeast of Raleigh. Her father, Claude, held jobs in a steel mill and a tobacco factory. Her mother, Maggie (Pelham) Foreman, died when Dorothy was 3. Foreman raised Dorothy and her three sisters, Effie Mae, Dazzelle and Annie Margaret, in a house without indoor plumbing.

Her father beat them with a belt, a switch or a piece of wood. “I recall nothing nurturing in my home environment,” Cotton wrote in the book “If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement” (2012). “When he wasn’t in a mood to start striking, he would silently glare in anger and hostility, paralyzing us with fear.”

Cotton attended Shaw University in Raleigh and transferred to Virginia State College in Petersburg, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English and library science and worked as the president’s housekeeper. She later earned a master’s degree in speech therapy from Boston University.

While attending Virginia State, she met George Cotton, who worked in the motor pool at Fort Lee, an Army base in Virginia. They married after her graduation but informally separated when she moved from Petersburg to Atlanta to work for the SCLC. They never divorced. (He has since died.)

The civil rights movement became her life, Cotton wrote. Her activism took shape at the Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, where Walker was pastor. He also headed the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and she became his secretary.

In 1959, Cotton organized protests against segregation in the local public library and at the whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth’s. She met King when he spoke at the church.

Before he left, King asked Walker to join him at the SCLC, and Cotton left for Atlanta with her boss.

In 1963, she helped train children to participate in demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama — a campaign known as the Children’s Crusade.

“Children as young as nine and ten stopped by our training sessions,” Cotton wrote in her book, “first out of curiosity and then because they were discovering feelings and possibilities they had not known before — the possibilities of living in a new and different Birmingham.”

A year later, she helped organize the SCLC’s night marches against segregation in St. Augustine, Florida.

“That was about the roughest city we’ve had — 45 straight nights of beatings and intimidation,” she said in an interview for the book “Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs” (2007), edited by Candie and Guy Carawan. “The Klan was always waiting for us — these folks with the chains and bricks and things.” She also brought about a dozen children to the local public beach for a “wade-in” to protest a whites-only policy.

“I remember holding the hands of two children and walking with great resolve toward the water,” she wrote, recalling how they were surrounded by white people yelling obscenities as police officers stood by.

“When we first stood at the edge of the water, an awful kind of quiet descended,” she continued. “I encouraged the girls and said, ‘Come on, let’s go in.’ As soon as we touched the water, they charged us. The lick I suffered from the attack still affects my hearing on the left side. One little girl got her nose broken.”

By then, her relationship with King had grown stronger. “From 1966 on,” said Garrow, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning book “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference” (1986), “she is regularly traveling with Doc, so it’s often Doc, Dorothy, Andy and Ralph.”

Cotton was in Memphis with King in April 1968, staying in Room 307 of the Lorraine Motel. King was in 306.

King had been to Memphis a week earlier to lead a march in support of striking sanitation workers, but it quickly turned violent, disrupted by a group of young black protesters who called themselves the Invaders. He returned on April 3 and spoke to some of those young men in his motel room, hoping to dissuade them from continued violence.

That night in Memphis, King gave the speech known for the declaration “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” in which he spoke of his mortality.

The next day, despite King’s pleas to stay, Cotton left Memphis on a 1 p.m. flight to Atlanta. Hours later, King was killed as he stood on the motel’s second-floor balcony, shot by the white supremacist James Earl Ray.

As she drove to the King house in Atlanta that night, she saw police lights flashing and the street lined with the cars of grieving people who had gathered there.

“As I took in this scene, reality sank in,” she wrote. “I screamed and screamed as I drove around to locate a parking spot.” Cotton left the SCLC. a few years later. She became director of the Head Start program in Jefferson County, Alabama; vice president of field operations for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta; and the Southeast regional director of ACTION, a federal agency for volunteer programs.

She moved to Ithaca in 1982 to be director of student activities at Cornell University, where she supported students who demanded that Cornell divest its financial ties to South Africa to protest the country’s apartheid policies.

After retiring from the university in 1991, Cotton formed a consulting firm. In 2010, the Center for Transformative Action, a nonprofit affiliate of Cornell, started the Dorothy Cotton Institute to advance global human rights. That same year, Baruch Whitehead, a music education professor at Ithaca College, formed the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers to help preserve the spirituals she loved to sing.

She left no immediate survivors.

When she looked back on the citizen education workshops in the South, Cotton recalled the mindset of the attendees.

“People had to be — they had to unbrainwash themselves, because this sense of being less than other people was hard-wired into the culture,” she told NPR in 2009. “And what was hard-wired into the psyche of white people was a sense of superiority.”

She also acknowledged the progress toward racial justice that the civil rights movement had achieved. But, she said, “That still does not mean we have reached the Promised Land.”