Ithaca Times

Civil Rights activist Dorothy Cotton speaks about the movement, world today

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Posted: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 12:00 am

The recollections come freely for Dorothy Cotton, when asked about the time she spent fighting for civil rights alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the rest of the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the 1960s.

Cotton remembers the details vividly, describing what it was like for her and other people of color during that time -- when they couldn't sit at the lunch counter at Woolworth's, when they couldn't use the public library, how the schools for African-American children were a mere afterthought looming in the shadow of the schools for white children.

"We were working against segregation of all public facilities," Cotton said.

Think about that for a minute. Less than 50 years ago, a relatively short time in history, that use of public facilities was not a right for everyone -- only whites. And that's just public facilities, not counting the private businesses that refused to serve or deal with people of color.

The Ithaca resident had quite a 2010 and start to 2011, beginning with her receiving the National Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum and ending with her accepting the MLK Peacemaker Award at GIAC's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast. The honors have piled up for Cotton, who continues to work to promote not just civil rights, but a more civil discourse and nonviolence throughout the world.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Cotton had been working with Rev. Wyatt T. Walker on civil rights issues plaguing Petersburg, Va. She joined the SCLC in 1960; going with Walker to Atlanta, Ga., after an invitation from King to join the organization after he spoke at Walker's church.

After several years, Cotton was named SCLC's Education Director, her primary responsibility to oversee the Citizenship Education Program, aimed at teaching literacy and nonviolence practices, and educating people on how to be active participants in the political process.

Cotton's link to King grew from just being a part of the SCLC to becoming a member of his executive staff, traveling as part of his contingent to Oslo, Norway, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

She said the CEP was the best thing the SCLC did, though the organization did run other programs.

"The (CEP) program was designed to help grassroots adults understand they had power," Cotton said. "It was designed to help people understand they didn't need an 'expert' to come in to fight for their rights."

The CEP didn't originate with the SCLC, however, it started in Johns Island, S.C., with Esau Jenkins and Septima Clark, who founded the first Citizenship School in 1954 to teach illiterate African-Americans to read with the intent to help them pass the then-required literacy test to be able to vote. These schools spread into other states over a few years, but the growth drew the ire of officials, notably the state of Tennessee. After the state seized the land on which one of these schools was located, the SCLC stepped in to take over the efforts of teaching literacy and empowering people.

And thus, Cotton's stint of running the CEP began.

"We spread it all over the southern and border states," she said of the program. "The purpose was to help make people feel confident in their struggle for equal rights, that they were on the right course.

"If we knew about a place where there was (civil rights) action taking place, we'd go there and reach out to people," Cotton added. "The goal was to help them to discover their power, strengthen them in their knowing their cause and to let them know they weren't alone."

Cotton is not shy about talking about the work done by the SCLC to educate African-Americans during the Civil Rights movement, but Cotton is humble about the role she played. And she said the enormity of the movement wasn't apparent at the time to those fighting for equal rights, only after time had passed and they were able to look back did the whole picture become clear.

"At this stage, I grapple with that question myself," Cotton said when asked if she knew how much of an impact the Civil Rights movement was making during the '60s. "We were surprised at the mark it made on the planet.

"At the time, we were just mad we couldn't go into public places," she added. "Black guys were coming back from the 2nd World War where they were fighting for freedom, but didn't have freedom when they came home."

Racism And A Spreading Movement

Cotton relayed a story about how she and Hosea Williams, another leader in the SCLC, went into a drug store one day and saw a little boy twirling on one of the stools at the soda fountain counter.

"He said to me, 'One day my child will be able to do that,'" Cotton said. "That was such a manifestation of the pain of what we experienced."

The movement was a growing one, however, spreading across the country. With each battle won -- to sit at the lunch counter or ride wherever they wanted to on the bus -- people of color started to believe something could be done about the injustices they were suffering throughout the country. Those who were touched by the movement and its leaders often found themselves actively participating.

Cotton gave an example of one of the SCLC field workers, Henry Brownlee, who got into the act after hearing the songs of a protest march that went by the plant where he was working.

"Henry was asked how he joined and he said, 'I heard you all singing,'" Cotton recalled. "We were marching near the plant where he worked, he heard us, he jumped the fence and never went back to the plant to work."

These stories roll calmly off Cotton's tongue, but her glistening eyes betray the feelings of pain she feels as she gives her account of what happened during that time. There's no denying the pride Cotton feels, however, when she thinks about what the movement did accomplish and what it spawned in the U.S.

"Everybody caught the spark and the spirit of the movement," Cotton said, adding that the civil rights fight gave future movements a template for how to take action. "Remember the student in Tiananmen Square, holding the sign that said 'We Shall Overcome?'

"We became the big model for the world," she added. "We take some pride in that."

There were only a few harrowing moments during her time with the SCLC, Cotton said. The only time she was teargassed was when she went on a trip with the Fellowship of Reconciliation to Vietnam during the war. She said there was a meeting that took place and after the gathering, those present decided they would march out to a nearby square.

"We didn't get one block away and the tear gas canisters came flying," Cotton said, adding she wished she had a photo of the one tear gas canister that she picked up -- it had "Made in the USA" stamped on the side of it. "You will move if you get teargassed. Everybody was running and there were tall fences separating the properties.

"A Vietnamese woman opened her gate and beckoned me in. She had a faucet and she motioned for me to throw water on my face," she added.

Another incident took place in St. Augustine, Fla., when there was a planned rally at an old slave market. Cotton and others slated to take part in the rally were walking there and came upon the former market to find it occupied by "hoodlums." She was walking with Rev. C.T. Vivian, another SCLC member, when the minister offered a prayer out loud to God.

"People starting shouting (from the old slave market), 'N---ers ain't got no God,'" Cotton said. "Then a brick went flying by my face and through a shop window."

During her time in St. Augustine, Cotton also encountered violent protest when she took some children to a beach. After dropping off one carload of African-American children at the beach and returning with a second vehicle full, she said the first group of children came running up to her pointing to a group of people on the beach who had threatened them with bodily harm for being there. Cotton said she was determined to take the children to the beach and she walked down to the water with the kids in tow -- only to have the group attack her and the children.

"I took some licks to the side of my head, one girl got her nose broken," she said, still incredulous that adults would attack children.

Those such incidents -- and many others she experienced -- only served to strengthen her resolve to fight for civil rights.

"When something happens, one becomes so stirred, so committed because you know your case is right, you know it's what you have to do," Cotton said, again noting that it's only after reflection that she realized how much those battles meant to others. "The further you get away from that period, the more important we will understand it to be. It is and was much larger than we knew."

Where Do We Go From Here?

Not only is that the title of King's last book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" (and the book that the MLK Community Build group had 10,000 reprinted copies doled out in the City of Ithaca), but it's a question Cotton asks herself all the time.

"I think I lived through the period where we thought we'd get the whole world understanding nonviolence," she said. "As I look at what's going on now, I'm really worried.

"It's clear we're on a journey, but I've been asking myself, 'Wil there be a time when it's all fixed and we all live together?'" Cotton added. "I wish I could get Martin and Gandhi and Thoreau, a lot of people all gone, get them around a table and see what these folks say."

The violence that has become prevalent throughout the world is what bothers her the most.

"There's been a proliferation of violence. I think we haven't discovered the root cause of the kind of violence we have now," Cotton said. "We didn't have that during the civil rights movement. It's a different kind of violence."

She called war "outdated," saying phrases like "we're serving our country" make it sound noble, but the reality is it results in nothing but "useless killings" undertaken for vengeful reasons.

"The seeds we plant by getting them back, is there another way?" Cotton said. "When does it end, when does it stop? We're only planting the seeds for more and more violence. How many lives is it worth?

"I think we're on a journey and I think we can reach certain milestones, but I'm not sure the journey ever ends, but I have to hold that vision," she added. "As Martin said, 'We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.'"

The immediate future for Cotton -- in addition to the numerous speeches and appearances she makes throughout the world -- is with the Dorothy Cotton Institute, hosted by the Center for Transformative Action at Cornell University.

Cornell is what brought Cotton to Ithaca nearly 30 years ago, after she'd worked for the SCLC, followed by stints running a Head Start program in Birmingham County, working for the City of Atlanta and finally -- at the request of King's widow, Coretta Scott King -- serving as vice president for field operations for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.

"I realized, after being so close to Dr. King, I think almost unconsciously I needed a real change," Cotton said.

That change came in the form of a letter from Cornell, a piece of mail that Cotton nearly relegated to junk status. She didn't, however, opening it and seeing an advertisement for a position as Cornell's director of student affairs.

Cotton sent a letter of interest, Cornell called and asked her to interview and shortly thereafter, she was on her way to Ithaca, where she has stayed for nearly 30 years now.

"I'm still surprised, but I'm glad I did it," Cotton said. "I hadn't worked in academia before; that was really new territory for me."

She eventually served as CU's Director of Student Activities for nine years before retiring.

But, Cotton's Cornell connection continues with the formation of the DCI, which she said came about after friends of hers decided there needed to be something pertaining to civil rights in the northeast and that it should honor her work.

"Everybody has rights, that is a motivating factor for you as you live your life on this planet," Cotton said. "Everybody has a story, and we want a place where they can figure out how they function and feel their ability to affect change."

The Dorothy Cotton Institute, still being fully developed, will offer education and leadership development, youth development, fellowships, annual gatherings, a Web site that functions as a virtual space to build community and, eventually, a dedicated education and visitor's center.

For more information about the Dorothy Cotton Institute, visit For more on Dorothy Cotton, visit her Web site

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