Dorothy Cotton: Lessons in servant leadership and movement building

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 7/30/2018, 6:25 p.m.
“We love King. I love King, but it was not King’s movement. He did not start the Civil Rights Movement ...

Children’s Defense Fund

“We love King. I love King, but it was not 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. 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.”

Dear friend Dorothy Cotton, who died last month at 88, worked tirelessly to do something about the injustices around her that she knew were wrong. She had a joyous, infectious spirit that made others want to join her. Like Septima Clark, Ella Baker, and other great women leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, she is too little known compared to some of her close male colleagues like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph

Abernathy and Ambassador Andrew Young. But as education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Cotton was an indispensable member of SCLC’s inner circle. And her attitude about leadership has lessons for us right now.

She might have seemed an unlikely “leadership” candidate growing up in Goldsboro, North Carolina, with her three sisters and their widower father, a tobacco factory worker who “didn’t know what college was.” She couldn’t remember ever seeing a book at home. But she worked her way through college and while at Virginia State College in Petersburg, Virginia, she joined civil rights leader Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker’s church, where she quickly started getting involved in local movement activities. Cotton eventually became secretary of the Petersburg Improvement Association founded by Walker.

When King asked Walker to come to Atlanta and become SCLC’s first full time executive director in 1960, Walker asked Cotton to go too. She originally intended to stay and help for just a few weeks but as she wrote in her book, If Your Back’s Not Bent, she realized “our work with SCLC was not just a job, it was a life commitment.”

As SCLC’s education director, she ran its lauded Citizenship Education Program, training over 6,000 people from across the South in weeklong workshops on voter education, literacy, and nonviolent protest tactics to prepare them to return home and spread the movement. SCLC built on the work the very great Septima Clark started at Highlander Folk School teaching people to run Citizenship Education Schools in their own communities. Cotton had a wonderful angelic voice and was known for using music at every meeting to teach and inspire. She described their mission as “[helping] people realize that they have within themselves the stuff it takes to bring about a new order.”

She accompanied King on his final trip to Memphis and later 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 the Center for Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University, continues her legacy by training a new generation to foster and protect human rights and achieve social change through civic participation.