R.B. Cottonreader Jr., 81: Key civil rights figure, behind the scenes

Among the civil rights elite, the Rev. R.B. Cottonreader Jr. was a rock star.

Everybody knew him. Those who didn’t know him wanted to meet him, and his stories were legendary.

But, outside of the movement, Cottonreader was largely unknown.

“He’s part of that group that a lot of people have never heard of, but were vitally important to the movement,” said State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. “They were not the headline grabbers, but they were the ones who created the energy. Guys like Cottonreader were the foundation of this movement.”

Named for his father, who was simply known as R.B., Cottonreader was one of the essential foot soldiers for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

“He gave all he had to the struggle,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “Dr. King used to say he got a lot of credit because he was the pilot of the plane, but he’d also say the pilot can’t do anything without the ground crew. Cottonreader was part of that ground crew.”

Though dementia took away many of his memories in recent years, he never forgot about the civil rights movement, Brooks said.

“He was anxious to keep the movement alive,” he said. “That spirit never left him.”

Cottonreader, of Lithonia, died Dec. 31. He was 81. A funeral is planned for 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. Donald Trimble Mortuary is in charge of arrangements.

Cottonreader was born in Texas and spent some time in California, said his half-sister, Racshelle Cottonreader, of Sacramento, Calif. He worked with Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, in San Francisco before he moved to the South, determined to help change the racial climate. R.B. Cottonreader spent nearly four decades working for, and with, the SCLC, primarily in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. He retired in 2001, but he knew there was still work to do.

“He’d always ask me, ‘When are we marching again?’ and the last time he asked me, I told him we’d be marching in April across the Moore’s Ford Bridge in Monroe,” Brooks said. “And he said he wanted to be there. He said he needed a motorized wheelchair to get around because he couldn’t do too much walking, but he wanted to be there.”

The Rev. Willie Bolden said during his time with the SCLC, he was eager to team up with Cottonreader.

“I loved working with Cottonreader because you knew something was going to happen, you just didn’t know what it was,” he said. “There was going to be a riot, someone was going to jail, something was going to happen, Cottonreader was going to see to it that something changed.”

In addition to his half-sister, Cottonreader is survived by a son, Terry Cottonreader and brother Lawrence Cottonreader, both of California.