During most of the 1960s, Dorothy Cotton was the highest ranking female in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), founded by Dr. King. She was SCLC’s educational director and directed the Citizenship Education Program (CEP), an adult grassroots training program that prepared disenfranchised people across the South to work with existing systems of local government to gain access to services and resources they were entitled to as citizens and taught them how to demonstrate peacefully against injustice, even when they were met with violence and hatred.
She was part of the group that accompanied King to Oslo, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize and, on April 4, 1968, was checked into the Lorraine Motel, but left to do CEP work before the assassin’s bullet was fired.
Cotton later served as field ops VP for the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, directed the federal agency for volunteer programs during the Carter administration and served as Cornell University’s student activities director.
Included in the transcript below (from our April 2008 discussion at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis) is Cotton’s explanation of the role sexism played in the organizations of the civil rights movement.
Since our conversation with the lifelong activist and visionary, Cornell University launched the Dorothy Cotton Institute as a tribute to her legacy. She’s also written the book, If Your Back’s Not Bent.
Tavis: I’m honored to welcome Dorothy Cotton back to this program. For eight years during the height of the civil rights movement, she served as the education director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the only woman on Dr. King’s executive staff. Dorothy Cotton, as always, nice to see you, and especially in this space.
Dorothy Cotton: Well, thank you. Well, thank you so much. I see you many nights.
Tavis: Well, I thank you, thank you, thank you. Let me ask you the same question I asked Mr. Belafonte on this program last night. Take me back to when you met Martin and how you got recruited.
Cotton: We met – my then-husband and I – in Petersburg, Virginia, where Black folk couldn’t use the public library. There was a little cubbyhole kind of place in the basement, like a place where they brought in the boxes of books and whatever. That’s where Black folk could go. So the minister at my church, Reverend Wyatt T. Walker, was also the regional director of the NAACP, and he said, “We’re going to take this on – ” the fact that Black folk couldn’t use the public library.
And I was very active in the church at Gillfield Baptist Church at the time, and so I started working with Wyatt and teaching the youngsters in the church – and it was mostly youngsters. The older folk weren’t quite ready to get on board. They were saying things like they wished those nappy-headed little kids would get out of the street with those picket signs. (Laughter)
But we were walking with picket signs in front of the library and ultimately the Woolworth stores, and of course we had mass meetings every night. Reverend Walker, having met Martin Luther King at a conference at a college up in Richmond, Virginia, invited this preacher from Montgomery to come to Petersburg because he heard – he wanted to show him what we were doing with our little movement there to break down the barriers around the library and other public places.
So he came to Petersburg and he gave – as usual, already a great orator. And I said a poem on the program that night. We don’t just have a speaker. We’ve got some music and some dance shows -
Tavis: A full program, yeah.
Cotton: A full program. And then we served a dinner at the parsonage afterwards, and Dr. King said, “Who is that woman who said the poem?” And he ended up sort of chatting with me around the dinner table as I was helping serve the meal – the young women’s parish club. And so I met him when he came to Virginia.
He invited Reverend Walker to move to Atlanta to work with him to build the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Wyatt T. Walker said, “I will do that if the people who help me most here will come with me.” So I said to my then-husband, George Cotton, “I think I’ll go down to Atlanta to help them out for about six months,” and I stayed 23 years.
Tavis: Twenty-three years.
Cotton: Because the civil rights movement just became my life.
Tavis: You left your husband?
Cotton: Well, he drove me down to Atlanta (laughter) and he deposited me down there. He never said, “You come home.”
Tavis: I’m going to leave that alone, Ms. Cotton. I’m going to leave that alone. I want to thank you on behalf of the movement. I don’t know what your husband’s got to say about that, but anyway.
Cotton: No, he’s gone unto the great beyond. No, he was saddened, but it became my life.
Tavis: It became your life.
Cotton: It became my life, yeah.
Tavis: On a serious note, though, that – as much as I know about you, I never knew that. That was a serious sacrifice. The movement meant that much to you that it became your life and you left your -
Cotton: Well, my goodness, one couldn’t help it. Like, if we had the kind of time, we could tell stories of how many, many folk who got involved where this movement became the full expression of their existence, many people in every city. Once we were on a roll doing that work, we were so motivated and energized. And I feel really upset when people talk about the civil rights movement and Dr. King with I don’t know, such long, sad faces.
We also had a great time together because we were building all this camaraderie. And I want to say something about the citizenship education program.
Tavis: Absolutely, please.
Cotton: Because people think we had just a bunch of marches, but people were really energized and feeling that you’re doing something really worthwhile is what everybody was going through, because we’d been sort of stewing in this place of – I call it American-style apartheid, and not knowing where to go and what to do with it and how to really make a difference.
Oh, gosh, there’s so many things I could attach to that, one being Dr. King didn’t make the movement by himself, and I think that is one of the distortions that I think is getting written too concretely in the history books.
Tavis: I hear your point that Dr. King did not make the movement by himself, but -
Cotton: He’s the first one to say that; he wrote that he didn’t.
Tavis: But he founded only one organization in his lifetime. It was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. How would you describe the work of that organization and the role you played in it?
Cotton: The work of the organization was actually – and this also was an evolving kind of thing, because we looked around and it just became clear to us that we needed to work with certain segments of the population. For example, we had someone in charge of working with ministers, for example. I used to go and talk to ministerial alliances; I don’t know if they do that anymore.
The Baptist ministers would get together one day and the Methodist ministers. I don’t know why they didn’t get together, but I would go and talk to them and other people would go and talk to them as well about a voter education drive, for example, because, well, look at the multiplier effect. If the preachers are talking about the fact that we’re going to fight for the right to vote, how many people then would catch the spark and would begin to work on that?
Fast forward, we inherited that program, the citizenship training program, and Dr. King was talking to me, I’m clear now, because he was looking for somebody – if we’re going to inherit this program, we need to somebody to really focus on it. That’s how Andrew Young came as the administrator of the program, and I became director of education. And we had fantastic workshops. I hope I’m not jumping around here too much.
Tavis: No, please, go ahead, yeah.
Cotton: Andrew Young and I and Septima Clarke, because we hired her, she worked with it when it was at Highlander, but we would travel the south and go into places where things were stirring. For example, in Ruleville, Mississippi where Fanny Lou Hamer lived, I stayed in Fanny Lou Hamer’s house telling her about this program.
“We have this training program, and we have a budget, we were funded by a couple of foundations, and we want you to come to our training center about 30 miles south of Savannah, a little place called Macintosh, Georgia.” It doesn’t even exist anymore; it’s been kind of subsumed into Midway, Georgia. But we had this training site, a building owned by the Congregational Church at the time.
And Andy Young, being a Congregational preacher, I think that’s why we got that building. But we would bring 40, 50 people to this building every single month, and they would stay with us for five days.
Tavis: And learn about what (unintelligible)?
Cotton: And why was it called citizenship education?
Cotton: No, these were grassroots people – I wish there was a better term than grassroots – but ordinary people right off the farms and the plantations and in a way, I guess we were all ordinary because even though I already had a master’s degree from Boston University, I learned much more about civics and civic education helping these people who went to fourth and fifth but they were leaders in their community.
These people in the citizens – this is the best program SCLC had. SCLC, the organization founded by Dr. King, the best program that we had because these were the people that spread out across the land, went back to their hometowns, and those hometowns were never the same again. First Amendment, people have a right peaceably to assemble, to petition the government for redress of grievances.
Translated, that means I jolly well can march from Selma to Montgomery (laughter) and say to the governor, “I ain’t going to take it no more.” And that’s what happened.
Tavis: And I thank you for all of that. Let me ask you one quick question. I got to make room for your other colleague, Clarence Jones.
Cotton: Right, right, yeah, I know.
Tavis: Who’s standing by to talk to us in just a second – Dr. King’s attorney. Before I let you go, I have to ask you how you navigated – and I want to ask you this honestly – how you navigated the sexism of the movement.
Cotton: It was hard. Well, I say that kind of tongue-in-cheek. But the women’s movement hadn’t happened then, so I’m the director of education for the organization, and here all these men are sitting around the conference table, the executive staff, and when they wanted coffee, they said, “Dorothy, would you get us some coffee, and would you take the minutes?”
And it was a man on our staff who was more enlightened than I was at the time, Jack O’Dell said, “Dr. King, Dorothy needs to stay in here because we’re discussing – ” whatever it was at the time, and I think this sort of really answers your question very specifically.
And what I know I would do now, because my consciousness – I have evolved, obviously, years ago – I would say, “Now Martin, let me show you how to make coffee. You put water here and coffee here.” (Laughter) “Let me show you.” And these men can also write, you know. I don’t have to take the minutes, so we can talk, call somebody in who – Dora McDonald took great shorthand. We need to call somebody in to take the minutes.
But we were programmed to serve men. I don’t know if the women who will be watching this program will remember a period when we were honored – I was not mad about it. It took me a while to get to that place where I knew that even my work was not – they didn’t even realize that this is how we were making the folk working with the citizenship education program, creating the troops – I wish I could use some nonmilitary language there – but creating the people who were now going back to their hometowns and fight against this American-style apartheid, they were created in the citizenship education training.
I’m tired of people saying, “And now we present Dorothy Cotton, who marched with Martin Luther King.” Well, a lot of folk flew down there one weekend and marched, but I worked -
Tavis: You did a lot more than that.
Cotton: Well, I worked with him every single day. But people have this image of only marches, and at this stage of my life I really want to counter that, because it was so much more than marches. They don’t even know we had a training program, but it was not something that would be publicized.
Tavis: Guess what?
Cotton: Yeah, I’ve got to go.
Tavis: No, they do now.
Cotton: Oh. (Laughter)
Tavis: They know now. You see her energy is as off the charts now as it was – I see why Dr. King had her around. If she had more energy then, than she has now, Dr. King was all right. Dorothy Cotton, I love you and I thank you for all that you’ve done.
Cotton: I love you too.
Tavis: And thanks for coming to see me.