Dorothy Cotton, a civil rights leader and activist who worked side-by-side with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., passed away at her home at the Kendal at Ithaca retirement community on Sunday afternoon. She was 88.
Cotton, an adviser to Dr. King, was one of the few women in a leadership position at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), serving as the educational director from 1960-68 and running the citizen’s education program, which encouraged Black Americans to exercise their right to vote.
A fearless advocate of equal rights for African-Americans, Cotton worked tirelessly in the South to push for desegregation and voting rights.
“She worked a lot in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia — just all over — everywhere where there was a need,” Edwina Moss, former assistant to civil rights leader Andrew Young, said to the Associated Press. “It was extremely important work; it was probably the core foundation of the organization.”
Charles Steele, the current SCLC president told WABE Cotton “was one of the few that was in the inner circle, which actually made her stand out. And she made a lot of decisions that influenced the Civil Rights Movement throughout America.”
Cotton, a native of North Carolina and a graduate of Virginia State University, spent her whole life in public service and fighting for others. In addition to her leadership role at the SCLC, Cotton was the Director of student activities at Cornell University from 1982 to 1991. In 2010, the Center for Transformative Action, founded the Dorothy Cotton Institute “to promote a global community for civil and human rights leadership.”
Cornell president Martha E. Pollack called Cotton a “powerful role model” for the entire university community.
“Dorothy Cotton inspired many at Cornell and in the greater Ithaca area through her tireless work in the civil rights movement and as an advocate for diversity and inclusion,” Pollack said in a statement on the University's website. “With her passing, our community has lost a powerful role model and a dear friend, who devoted her life to creating a more just and equitable world.”
Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., remembered the icon on Twitter, telling her followers, “We all should know about the courage and contributions of #DorothyCotton.”