Dorothy Cotton (born January 5, 1930) was a leader in the 1960s African-American Civil Rights Movement and a member of the inner-circle of one of its main organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As the SCLC's Educational Director, she was arguably the highest ranked female member of the organization.
Dorothy Foreman Cotton was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1930 as Dorothy Lee Forman at the beginning of the Great Depression. Her mother died when she was three years old, leaving her and her three sisters to be raised by their father, Claude Foreman, a tobacco factory worker with only a third grade education. Life was a daily struggle in their southern segregated rural town.
When Foreman was in high school she met Rosa Gray, an English teacher that positively changed her life and encouraged her to be successful and strong. Gray, being the director of the annual school play, often gave Foreman the lead in the school play, which she said made her feel "such a connection to her". Gray helped secure a place for Foreman at Shaw University where she studied English as well as secured her two part-time jobs for her on campus, one in the school cafeteria and the other cleaning the teacher's dormitory. When Dr. Daniel, a teacher at Shaw was offered the Presidency job at Virginia State University, Foreman went along and worked as his housekeeper. Whilst working for Daniel, Foreman described her job in the residence as "part daughter, part housekeeper" While she was at Virginia State, she met a man by the name of Horace Sims, a student that was in a Shakespearean class with her, who introduced her to George Cotton. Cotton was not a student at Virginia State. She began dating Cotton and he later proposed to Cotton after asking Daniel for his blessing. She married George Cotton in the President’s home just after graduating. She then pursued and earned a master's degree in Speech Therapy from Boston University in 1960. It was in Petersburg that Foreman (now Cotton), got involved in a local church led by Wyatt T. Walker. It was here that her Civil Rights activism would begin.
In an interview done by the Library of Congress, Cotton recounts an instance when she was outside and a white boy rode his bike by and sang, "deep down in the heart of niggertown." She recounts the experience and says that this made her angry and she never forgot it. This is one instance where Cotton stated that the instance gave her "a consciousness about the wrongness of the system" This would set up her mentality as she began her journey working with the Civil Rights Movement.
Whilst she was attending Virginia State University, she got involved with a local church led by Wyatt T. Walker, the regional head for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She says that she felt drawn to the church because of its involvement in the movement. Walker asked Cotton if she would be willing to help the organizing and training of children for picketing campaigns. Her job was to teach the kids how to correctly picket and march for the movement. "She helped Walker protest segregation at the library and that the lunch counter and she taught direct-action tactics to students." Not long after she got involved Martin Luther King Jr. was invited to the church to speak. The whole program for the evening included both King and Cotton. Cotton read a piece of poetry and King took an interest and later had a conversation with Cotton. While in Petersburg, King asked Walker if he would move to Atlanta to help King form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Walker said that he would only go if he could bring two of his closest associates. Those two associates were Jim Wood and Dorothy Cotton. Cotton made the decision to go down for 3 months. She ended up staying for 23 years. In those years she made immense contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. When Cotton first got down to Atlanta, she was Walker's Administrative Assistant. Not long after she arrived in Atlanta, King recruited her to go help out over at Highlander Folk School, a school that was receiving lots of bad publicity. At Highlander, Cotton met Septima Clark. It was with Septima Clark that Cotton would work on the Citizenship Education Program.
Cotton's involvement with the movement took up a majority of her life. She says that felt an obligation to doing so. In a novel she wrote about her involvement with the movement it reads, "our work with SCLC was not just a job, it was a life commitment." Perhaps her biggest achievement in the movement was the Citizenship Education Program: a program meant to help blacks register to vote.
Cotton’s close work with Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins, via both the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, created a grassroots movement in rural southern areas during the violent and tense Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. Esau Jenkins was an early participant in the formation of the Program. As an independent businessman with "a third grade education but a PhD mind", Jenkins drove a private bus to the mainland from the coastal Islands of South Carolina, taking island locals to and from their day jobs.
During these rides, Esau would start conversations with his passengers about the power and importance of their individual right to vote. Esau recognized a dire need for educational programs aimed at bringing awareness to political and civil rights in an effort to spark African American communities into action for change. These informal conversations were imperative to forming the base of initial participants in the Citizenship Education Program.
The Citizenship Education Program predominately focused on teaching voter registration requirements as well as community and individual empowerment. Most Southern states had created voting registration laws designed around literacy exercises specifically to disqualify potential African American voters. Such requirements to register to vote included having the ability to recite random parts of the constitution as well as signing ones name in cursive writing. While these requirements were made for blacks to register, many people that worked in these registration offices were illiterate themselves. This lack of ability to understand what was written made the decision all up to the preference of the worker. Oftentimes, this meant that blacks would be turned away. However, many blacks first needed to be taught that they had certain rights and that voting was among the most important. The program targeted these fundamental points and taught other more basic everyday needs as well. Another hope for the program was to create a wave of education that would spread throughout the local communities, with the community members themselves as the teachers.
The hope for the education program was that it would spread to other communities and that these programs and schools would be set up in other communities throughout the south and the entire United States. The realized the importance of having blacks that could vote. In a brochure for the program the goal is clearly stated: "Their immediate program is teaching reading and writing. They help students to pass literacy tests for voting." These programs also provided the cost of tuition, training, and even the cost of travelling to the training center itself. With its commitment the Citizenship Education Program would help many blacks register over the next few years. The Citizenship Education Program had a profound impact on the movement with well over 6,000 men and women participating in workshops and classes.
Cotton helped James Bevel organize the students during the 1963 Birmingham Movement and its Children's Crusade, and conducted citizenship classes throughout the South during the era. She also accompanied Martin Luther King, Jr., the co-founder and first president of the SCLC, on his trip to Oslo, Norway to receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
An in-depth interview with Cotton was done by the Oral Histories of the Civil Rights History Project, conducted through the University of North Carolina.
Cotton's impact on the movement is still honored today. She and many others worked very hard to achieve the rights that blacks have today. There is currently a musical group that sings in honor of Cotton. This group is called the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers. Cotton was a gifted singer, and often led negro spirituals at rallies and in classes. This group is meant to honor this and "preserve the uniquely American art form of the formal concert style "Negro Spiritual." Her work contributed to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement that Americans study today.