Dorothy Cotton, Civil Rights Pioneer and Colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., Dies at 88

Dorothy Cotton, who worked closely with The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., taught nonviolence to demonstrators before civil rights marches and sometimes calmed tensions by singing church hymns, has died. She was 88.

Cotton died Sunday afternoon at the Kendal at Ithaca retirement community in New York, said Jared Harrison, a close friend who was at her bedside. Harrison said she had battled illnesses recently but didn’t specify a cause of death.

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

“She was a vital part of the organization,” said Xernona Clayton, who was King’s office manager in Atlanta and organized protest marches and fundraisers.

“She had a beautiful voice, and when things got tense, Dorothy was the one who would start up a song to relieve the tension,” Clayton recalled.

“She had such a calming influence in her personality,” Clayton added. “She had a personality that would lend itself to people listening to her.”

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 the online 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.

Harrison, who worked with Cotton at Cornell while she served as director of student activities, said a small private burial and a public memorial were being planned in Ithaca but that details hadn’t been finalized.

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Associated Press National Writer Errin Haines Whack contributed to this report.

Source: Associated Press