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Dorothy Cotton: Top aide to Martin Luther King Jr., has died

Former director of SCLC educational programs was 88

Dorothy Cotton, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s, closest aides in an orbit dominated by men, has died. 

The Dorothy Cotton Institute and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where Cotton served as national director of education from 1963 until King’s assassination in 1968, confirmed Cotton died June 10 in her home in Ithaca, N.Y.

She was 88. 

“Ms. Cotton died peacefully at her residence, Kendal at Ithaca, with loved ones at her bedside,” read a statement on the DCI website. “She was a remarkably courageous leader, an inspiring educator, a great spirit, and our dear friend.”

Cotton is perhaps best known for her work with King and the SCLC, but she was much broader than that. 

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After leaving the SCLC in the early 1970s, Cotton moved into academia in New York and continued to be active in the movement, although she faded from the civil rights conversation.

Andy Young, who also worked closely with King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said that was typical.

“All of the women got shortchanged. Dorothy Height didn’t speak at the March on Washington, although she was one of the organizers.  Amelia Boynton started in 1929 and worked to get Obama elected in 2008 and nobody knows who she is,” Young said. “The press ignored the women and looked to preachers for everything. Dorothy resented that. She was a feminist before feminism was cool.”

Young, who joined the SCLC around the same time as Cotton, remembers one small, but revealing, incident where King challenged Cotton and lost.

“I remember one meeting, Martin said ‘Dorothy, get me a cup of coffee.’ She said ‘No, I won’t get you a cup of coffee,’” Young recalled. “She was constantly rebelling against the role of being made a second class citizen. She would tell Dr. King no all the time. So I got the coffee.”

Born in Goldsboro, N.C., Cotton attended Raleigh’s Shaw University before transferring to Virginia State University to get a bachelor’s degree in English and Library Science in 1955. 

In 1960, she got a master’s degree in speech therapy from Boston University, where King had earned his doctorate five years earlier. 

She joined the SCLC in 1963, following her pastor, the Rev. Wyatt T. Walker from Virginia where she was teaching. Walker had been named the organization’s executive director. 

Dorothy Cotton as a young woman listens to a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. (Courtesy of Dorothy Cotton)

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“From 1963 onward, throughout the last five years of Dr. King’s life, no one was closer or more emotionally supportive of him than Dorothy Cotton,” said King and SCLC scholar David Garrow. 

As one of only a handful of women in King’s inner circle dominated by life-sized personalities like Ralph David Abernathy, Hosea Williams and Jesse Jackson, Garrow said Young and Cotton served as perfect counter-balances. 

“Their actual roles were bigger than their titles,” said Garrow, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” “Unlike James Bevel, Hosea and Ralph, they weren’t high maintenance. They were all talented and important, but they were always management problems for Dr. King. Dr. King didn’t like that and wasn’t good at managing it. Andy and Dorothy strengthened him rather than drained him.”

Cotton’s official title at the SCLC was director of education.

"And my role was to plan the five-day sessions to help black folks unbrainwash themselves,"  Cotton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2012.  

Those five-day sessions were part of the Citizen Education Program, designed to train poor people to become more civically and politically involved through voter registration and non-violent protest.

Young said the educational program was the unsung backbone of the civil rights movement, as it trained more than 6,000 people -- many of whom who went on to lead important aspects of the movement across the South.

“Dorothy had a beautiful voice and the one thing that black people liked to do was talk, but she started out the meetings by singing freedom and old spirituals,” Young said. “She put the character to that whole education program.”

Cotton was in Memphis briefly, but left shortly before King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. 

Dorothy Cotton 1930-2018 (Courtesy of Claybourne Carson)

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"I was eating breakfast in the restaurant when he called for me," Cotton said. "His last words to me were 'Get a later plane.' But I had to get back to Atlanta,” Cotton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2012. “I got on my 1 p.m. flight, got home and took a nap and said I would go to the office later. While I was taking a nap, my neighbor rang my door bell and said, 'I really have some bad news: Dr. King has been shot.' " 

Cotton remained in the SCLC for a few years after King’s death. 

"After his death, I worked with Mrs. King to start the King Center,” Cotton said in 2012. “Now I spend a lot of my time speaking and teaching about Dr. King and the civil rights movement. I do a lot of work looking at the lessons we learned and helping people organize. People are doing a lot of creative things, building off the civil rights struggle. And I am always answering the question of Dr. King's last book, 'Where Do We Go from Here?' " 

In 1982, Cotton was named director of student activities at Cornell University. She remained in that position until 1991. 

In 2010, the Dorothy Cotton Institute was created by the Center for Transformative Action in Ithaca to promote a global community for civil and human rights in Cotton’s name.

The DCI has not released funeral information.

Read and sign the online guestbook for Dorothy Cotton

RELATED: From 2012, Dorothy Cotton recalled the influence of Martin Luther King

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