Dorothy Cotton

Photo credit: Clair Popkin, 2017

Born January 15, 1930

Dorothy Cotton was one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s closest confidants, and one of the few women in his inner circle of leaders. Born in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Cotton attended Shaw University in Raleigh and Virginia State College in Petersburg, Virginia earning a degree in English and library science. Later, she earned her master’s degree in speech therapy from Boston University. While in Petersburg she worked as a secretary for the Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker and helped to organize protests against segregated libraries and lunch counters in the late 1950s. When Dr. King appointed Reverend Walker as the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1960, Cotton joined him in Atlanta and quickly rose in the ranks becoming the most senior women in the SCLC directing thousands in citizen education workshops along with Andrew Young and Septima Clark on citizenship rights, black history, and economic opportunities. By 1963 Cotton was training children and organizing demonstrations in Birmingham in what became known as the Children’s Crusade. From 1966 until Dr. King’s assassination, Dorothy Cotton was regularly traveling as one of King’s closest advisors. In 1970 she left the SCLC to hold multiple leadership positions in educational organizations such as Head Start. In 1982 Cotton became director of student activities at Cornell University and upon her retirement in 1991, she established the Dorothy Cotton Institute to advance global human rights as an affiliate of Cornell. Nearby Ithaca College also created the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers to preserve her love of spirituals. Dorothy Cotton died on June 10, 2018 read her obituary in the New York Times.


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