It might be disappointing, not to mention surprising, to discover that the movie you want to see - a documentary, in fact, not some big blockbuster - is sold out on its opening night.
But under certain circumstances it’s also heartening: when the venue is your town’s independent theater, the film is by a hometown company, and the subject is a local (and national) hero, an icon of political and social justice who spent much of her life in this town.
“Move When The Spirit Says Move: The Legacy of Dorothy Foreman Cotton” was presented at Cinemapolis from late March into early April.
PhotoSynthesis Productions, a self-described “little film company” headquartered on Tioga Street in Ithaca, made the film in collaboration with the Dorothy Cotton Institute, founded in Ithaca by Cotton and colleagues “to bring visibility to 21st century efforts for justice and freedom, civic engagement and social transformation.”
Cotton was born Dorothy Foreman in 1930 in a segregated North Carolina town. Her mother died when Dorothy was young, and she and her sisters were raised by an uneducated and abusive father.
Despite her deprivation, Dorothy was a personable child and good student who drew attention in school and won support in applying for college. She studied English at Shaw University in Raleigh and then at Virginia State University, where she met and married George Cotton.
While at Virginia State, Dorothy Cotton joined a church led by the regional head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She joined efforts against segregation and taught direct-action tactics. She met Martin Luther King, Jr. there and, with her church mentor, accepted King’s offer to come to Atlanta to help with his work developing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Cotton said subsequently that, newly married, she intended to go for only a few months, but ended up staying more than 20 years.
King became president of the SCLC, and Cotton the Education Director of its Citizenship Education Program. In the guise of an adult literacy program, Cotton and others secretly gave instruction in rights of citizenship, community organizing, civic engagement and protest: work that could certainly have gotten them killed by white racists with little to fear from complicit law enforcement.
Throughout her years of activism, Cotton remained an adherent of non-violence despite constant threats, including a physical attack at a protest that left her with lasting injury.
Along with her courage, Cotton had an easy grace which aided the movement. She was a gifted singer and often led renditions of spirituals to rally group strength. Today the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers of Ithaca College honor this aspect of her legacy.
Cotton was a director of student activities at Cornell from 1982 to 1991, with particular focus on university divestment from financial ties with apartheid South Africa. She cited it as a continuation of her civil rights work against “American-style apartheid.”
With King and others in the 1960s, most notably Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy, Cotton became a leading figure in American political life. Describing the leadership of the SCLC, King biographer David Garrow says it was “Doc, Dorothy, Andy and Ralph …She was always an equal partner.”
Cotton’s relative obscurity is certainly a facet of sexism. She was the only woman within that inner circle of peers.
In the film Cotton recounts a staff meeting where an aide to King said to her that King needed a cup of coffee. Cotton turned to Andrew Young and said, “Andy, get your boss a cup of coffee.”
Cotton frequently emphasized that she “worked with Dr. King, not for him.”
Cotton was possibly the most powerful woman in America in her years with the civil rights movement, changing the nation’s political, social and legal landscapes. Certainly she deserves distinction for her many achievements and the risks she took.
For historical context, today there are 25 women in the United States Senate. But outside of special elections, appointments, and family connection, there were none elected independently until 1980: more than 20 years after Cotton began her most prominent work.
Dorothy Cotton passed away in Ithaca in 2018. Ry Ferro, Ithaca College ‘14, co-director of “Move When The Spirit Says Move,” says of the film, “It’s time for everyone to know who Dorothy Cotton was. Our hope is that this film will build on her legacy at a time when democracy is under attack.”
Dorothy Cotton foreshadowed those words and these times when she said, in a speech at Cornell’s Sage Chapel in 2007, “Never forget that it is government by the people only if we make it so,” words which drove her work and life
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