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Dorothy F. Cotton

2018 - 2018 Obituary Condolences Gallery
Dorothy F. Cotton Obituary
Dorothy F. Cotton

Ithaca - Dorothy F. Cotton died surrounded by friends on June 10, 2018 at Kendal of Ithaca. Dorothy served for twelve years as Director of Education of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was the only female member of the SCLC Executive Staff, and became one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s closest friends and colleagues. Her position in his inner circle put her at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement as an educator, planner, activist and leader.

She ran the highly effective Citizenship Education Program that responded to the need for grass roots action to empower and educate those marginalized by race and poverty to shed the yolk of "victimhood". Participants were taught to understand their rights as citizens, how to pass the voting tests and, in some cases, to read and write.

Dorothy continued at the SCLC for three years after Dr. King's assassination. She then served as Vice President for Field Operations at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-violent Change, in Atlanta, Georgia. Dorothy was then appointed Southeastern Regional Director for ACTION, the federal agency for volunteer programs under the Carter administration, from 1978 to 1981.

In 1982, Dorothy became the Director of Student Activities at Cornell University. She later founded her own consulting company, Dorothy Cotton & Associates, conducting seminars on leadership development, individual empowerment and social change. Among her many awards, Ms. Cotton has received three honorary doctorate degrees and was honored as recipient of the 2010 National Civil Rights Museum's National Freedom Award whose previous winners include Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, the Dalai Lama and Bono.

Ms. Cotton's book, "If Your Back's Not Bent", tells her story, growing up poor in the segregated South and the ground breaking work of the Citizenship Education Program. In 2012, she joined with other members of the community to establish the Dorothy Cotton Institute as part of Cornell University's Center for Transformative Action, with a goal of continuing this work.

Dorothy had a wonderful singing voice and was often "moved by the spirit" to burst into song as part of a presentation or in the middle of a conversation, to the delight of her listeners. She always said the civil rights movement was a singing movement and Dorothy led many in song throughout her adult life to lift up, enlighten and share the burden. Dorothy was very honored to have inspired the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, started by Dr. Baruch Whitehead of Ithaca College.

Born in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Dorothy completed her undergraduate degree at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia. She moved to Boston for her Masters Degree in Speech Therapy. Since then, Dorothy traveled the country and the world with her message but always looked forward to coming home to Ithaca, New York. She is survived by a large family of nieces, nephews and cousins and many loving friends here and around the globe.

Burial will be private. A memorial service to celebrate Dorothy's life and legacy will be held in the coming months with details to follow:

Memorial donations may be made to:

Virginia State University Library Archives

The Dorothy Cotton Collection

P.O. Box 9406

Petersburg, VA 23806


The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Change

449 Auburn Ave. NE

Atlanta, GA 30312
Published in Ithaca Journal on June 12, 2018
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