Dorothy Cotton: Popular Educator for Radical Democracy
One of the many Baptist women who, if not unsung, is certainly “undersung,” is Dorothy Cotton, civil rights leader, peacemaker, and popular educator. A retired administrator of Cornell University, Cotton currently makes her home in Ithaca, NY. But Cotton was one of few female leaders in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, serving as Education Director from 1960-1968, running the Citizenship Education Program. She was a force to be reckoned with and more than held her own among the inflated male egos of the SCLC.
In his memoir, An Easy Burden, Andrew Young, claims that the feminist movement really began when Dorothy Cotton, who had the only functional car at the time, insisted on driving Young & other SCLC leaders through the dangerous backroads of Alabama & Mississippi to bail out Fannie Lou Hamer and others who had been severely beaten and would likely be killed if not liberated. The male insistence that it was too dangerous for Cotton to come met her iron stubborness and determination and raw guts.
Cotton later was Senior VP of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where she was a senior trainer in nonviolent direct action.
During the Carter administration, Cotton was the Southeastern Regional Director, of ACTION, the government’s agency for volunteer programs, from 1978-1981. She was Director of Student Activities, Cornell University, from 1982-1991. She now works as a motivational speaker. She has been awarded many honorary doctorates for her social justice and peace work.
One of the fringe benefits I reap from long involvement in peace and justice work is that I get to meet so many amazing people. Cotton and I are both members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and in 2004, she was one of the speakers at the celebration of the FOR’s 90th anniversary (founded in 1914). I was there and privileged to meet her. I encouraged her then to take the time to write a memoir because new generations need to be inspired by her amazing story.
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