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Dorothy Cotton (1930–2018), civil rights pioneer

by Kirk Fox

ATLANTA (AP) — Dorothy Cotton, a civil rights pioneer who worked closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has died.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference spokesman Maynard Eaton told The Associated Press that Dorothy Cotton died Sunday.

She was among a handful of women on the executive staff of the SCLC during the civil rights era, and she led the Atlanta-based civil rights group’s Citizenship Education Program.


Cotton became one of King’s closest colleagues while she served as national director of education for more than a decade, according to Cotton’s biography at the Dorothy Cotton Institute.

Cotton remained active in civil rights and education after King’s death, later serving as an administrator at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

During a commemoration of King’s death in 1993, Cotton said that people need to take responsibility for carrying on the mission of racial equality.

“Rosa Parks didn’t wait to see what everybody else was doing. She just did it,” Cotton said of the woman who inspired the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotts by refusing to give her seat to a white man. “We should ask ourselves what we’re doing. It starts with ourselves, our families and our churches.”

Cotton was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina. She and her three sisters were raised by her father after her mother died when she was 3 years old, according to her biography. She attended Shaw University in Raleigh before earning a bachelor’s degree in English and Library Science at Virginia State College in 1955. She earned master’s degree in Speech Therapy from Boston University in 1960.

She met King when he preached at the church she attended in Petersburg, Virginia, and was invited shortly thereafter to join the staff at the SCLC, her biography says.

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