Dorothy Cotton, 1930–2018
The civil rights leader who educated black voters
In 1964, Dorothy Cotton took a dozen African-American children to a public beach in St. Augustine, Fla., for a “wade-in” protest against the city’s whites-only swimming policy. Surrounded by angry white people yelling obscenities, the activist and educator held the hands of two children and calmly stepped into the sea. “As soon as we touched the water, they charged us,” said Cotton, a top member of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Cotton suffered permanent hearing problems after being struck on the head during the wade-in, part of a weeks-long anti-segregation protest she helped organize in St. Augustine. It was “45 straight nights of beatings and intimidation,” she said. Yet Cotton refused to be deterred, and over the next decade played a crucial—if often overlooked—role in the civil rights struggle.
Born in Goldsboro, N.C., Cotton was 3 years old when her mother died, said The New York Times. Her disciplinarian father, who worked in a tobacco factory, raised Cotton and her three sisters “in a house without indoor plumbing.” She became involved in the civil rights movement while studying at Virginia State College and in 1960 moved to Atlanta to head the SCLC’s education program. She used that position to teach thousands of disenfranchised African-Americans “about their basic rights of citizenship,” said The Washington Post, priming them for leadership and action in their own communities. The only woman on the SCLC’s executive staff, she insisted on being treated as her male colleagues’ equal. “I remember one meeting, [King] said, ‘Dorothy, get me a cup of coffee.’ She said, ‘No,’” recalled former SCLC executive and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. “She was constantly rebelling against being a second-class citizen.”
King came to rely on Cotton as a trusted adviser, said the Ithaca, N.Y., Journal. She “helped King type his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” was a key organizer of the 1963 marches in Birmingham, Ala., and was staying in a Memphis motel room next to his until hours before his 1968 assassination. Cotton left the SCLC a few years later but remained active in the civil rights campaign. She looked back on the movement’s achievements with pride in a 2009 interview but said that “does not mean that we have reached the Promised Land. It means that we have put some more cracks in that wall of segregation.”