“We love Dr. King. I love Dr King, but that wasn’t Dr King’s move. He didn’t start the Civil Rights Movement … It was started by a person here, a person there, a person here. If you see something wrong, sometimes you will have to take action on your own. A person sees something wrong and starts to do something about it. People will join you if you do it with the right mind.
Dear friend Dorothy Cotton, who passed away on June 10, 2018 at the age of 88, worked tirelessly to do something about the injustices around her that she knew to be wrong. She had a cheerful and infectious spirit that made others want to join her.
Like Septima Clark, Ella Baker and other great women leaders of the civil rights movement, she is too little known compared to some of her close male colleagues like the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Ralph Abernathy and the Ambassador. Andrew Young. But as the Director of Education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dorothy Cotton was an indispensable member of SCLC’s inner circle. And his attitude to leadership has lessons for us right now.
She might have seemed an unlikely candidate for “leadership” growing up in Goldsboro, NC, with her three sisters and their widowed father, a tobacco factory worker who “didn’t know what college was like. “. She couldn’t remember ever seeing a book at home.
But she did get her college education, and while at Virginia State College in Petersburg, Va., She joined the Church of Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, a civil rights leader, where she soon began to get involved in the activities of the local movement. Cotton eventually became secretary of the Petersburg Improvement Association founded by Walker.
When King asked Walker to come to Atlanta and become the first full-time executive director of SCLC in 1960, Walker asked Cotton to go there too. Originally, she intended to stay and help for just a few weeks, but as she wrote in her book “If Your Back Is Not Bent”, she realized that “our work with SCLC was not just a job, it was a lifelong commitment ”.
As Director of Education for SCLC, she led its citizenship education program, training over 6,000 people from the South in week-long workshops on voter education, literacy and non-violent protest tactics to prepare them to return home and spread the movement.
The SCLC built on the work that the great Septima Clark began at Highlander Folk School teaching people to run citizenship education schools in their own communities. Cotton had a wonderful, angelic voice and was known to use music at every meeting to teach and inspire. She described their mission as “[helping] people realize that they have within them what it takes to bring about a new order.
She accompanied King on his last trip to Memphis and then worked at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change before beginning another phase of leadership as a university administrator. Today, the Dorothy Cotton Institute, part of Cornell University’s affiliated Center for Transformative Action, continues its legacy of training a new generation to promote and protect human rights and achieve social change through to civic participation.
She loved working with students and we are grateful to her for generously sharing her time and wisdom and singing giftedly with young and older leaders at the Children’s Defense Fund-Haley Farm and other gatherings including the Rockefeller Conference. Center in Bellagio, gathered from all over the world.
In one session, she stressed that action does not always have to stem from a formal plan: “On a lot of university campuses where I do workshops and discussions, some young people think that we, the old people, have a plan… We sat there most of the night. sometimes strategies. We would take an action, and then we would see what kind of reaction we got, and then we would do the next action based on the reaction we got. I just want to say that a movement is dynamic. It’s changing. It’s changing. No one had a plan, and don’t let anyone tell you we did.
She added, “The action is popping up in a lot of different places at the same time… We were sick and tired of being sick and tired, and some people took action and we learned as we went.” She has always reminded us that we cannot wait for leaders – leadership emerges from action.
His words should be an encouragement to the wave of courageous and engaged students, other young people and those of all ages in communities across the country who are speaking out today against gun violence, the horrific policies of immigration snatching children from parents, and a list of other injustices.
Dorothy Cotton would love the resistance that is popping up across our country right now and she has to go on and grow and grow. Like her, we must stand up and protest as so many do for as long as it takes when we see injustice rampant all around us. When we see something wrong, don’t ask why no one is doing something about it, but why I’m not doing something. This is how transformative movements happen – person by person speaking out and saying no against unfair policies.