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Dorothy Cotton (b. January 5, 1930) was a leader of the 1960s African-American Civil Rights Movement and a member of the inner-circle of one of its main organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As the SCLC's Educational Director, she was arguably the highest ranked female member of the organization.
Dorothy Forman Cotton was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1930 as Dorothy Lee Forman at the beginning of the Great Depression. Her mother died when she was three years old, leaving her and her three sisters to be raised by their father and life was a daily struggle in their Southern segregated rural town.
When Forman was in high school she met Ms. Gray, a teacher that positively changed her life and encouraged her to be successful and strong. Forman was often given the lead in the school play and she came to love poetry. Ms. Gray helped secure a place for Cotton at Shaw University where she studied English while working two part time jobs, one in the school cafeteria and the other cleaning. She eventually came to work in the University President’s Residence as housekeeper. She married George Cotton in the President’s home just after graduating from Shaw with an undergraduate degree in English.
It was during the mid 1950s that Cotton became involved in Civil Rights activity and began work at the Gillfield Baptist Church with Wyatt T. Walker. Not long after she was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr. during a dinner held after a church meeting at Gillfield Baptist. Dr. King had appreciated a poem that Cotton had read during the meeting and from that time a very close friendship formed that lasted until Dr. King’s death in 1968.
Civil rights activity
Shortly after getting married, Cotton was asked to come work in Atlanta for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as Wyatt T. Walkers personal secretary. Cotton and her husband agreed that she would go to Atlanta for three months; she stayed for twenty-three years. In those years she made immense contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and held one of the highest-ranking positions as Director of Education for the SCLC from 1960-1968. Other contributions include working exstensively with the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee and helping to organize the Citizenship Education Program that spread throughout the South. She worked alongside some of the most powerful women of the movement including Septima Clark, Ella Baker, Ernestine Brown and Lilly Hunter. She also worked closely with Andrew Young and Esau Jenkins.
Citizenship education program
Cotton’s close work with Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins, via both the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, created a grassroots movement in rural southern areas during the violent and tense Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s. Esau Jenkins was an early participant in the formation of the Program. As an independent businessman with "a third grade education but a PhD mind", Jenkins drove a private bus to the mainland from the coastal Islands of South Carolina, taking island locals to and from their day jobs.
During these rides, Esau would start conversations with his passengers about the power and importance of their individual right to vote. Esau recognized a dire need for educational programs aimed at bringing awareness to political and civil rights in an effort to spark African American communities into action for change. These informal conversations were imperative to forming the base of initial participants in the Citizenship Education Program.
The Citizenship Education Program predominately focused on teaching voter registration requirements as well as community and individual empowerment. Most Southern states had created voting registration laws designed around literacy exercises specifically to disqualify potential African American voters. Such requirements to register to vote included having the ability to recite random parts of the constitution as well as signing ones name in cursive writing. However many first needed to be taught that they had certain rights and that voting was among the most important. The program targeted these fundamental points and taught other more basic everyday needs as well. One hope for the program too, was to create a wave of education that would spread throughout the local communities, with the community members themselves as the teachers. In this way the Citizenship Education Program had a profound impact on the movement with well over 6,000 men and women participating in workshops and classes.
Cotton helped James Bevel organize the students during the 1963 Birmingham Movement and its Children's Crusade, and conducted citizenship classes throughout the South during the era. She also accompanied Martin Luther King, Jr., the co-founder and first president of the SCLC, on his trip to Oslo, Norway to receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
An in-depth interview with Cotton was done by the Oral Histories of the Civil Rights History Project, conducted through the University of North Carolina.
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