STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

Dorothy Cotton, civil rights pioneer and MLK colleague, dies

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

Posted: Jun 11, 2018 10:33 PM

ATLANTA (AP) — Dorothy Cotton, who worked closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., taught nonviolence to demonstrators before 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 small number of women in leadership positions at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the civil rights era, and she led the Atlanta-based civil rights group's Citizenship Education Program.

"She had a beautiful voice, and when things got tense, Dorothy was the one who would start up a song to relieve the tension," said Xernona Clayton, who was King's office manager in Atlanta and organized protest marches and fundraisers.

"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 and worked at the SCLC for more than a decade.

Cotton also commanded respect from her male counterparts within the group, said Bernard Lafayette Jr., a longtime civil rights leader who is now chairman of the SCLC's national board.

When King and others ventured to parts of the Deep South that had a reputation for violence against blacks, Cotton was fearless, Lafayette recalled in an interview.

"She was very courageous," Lafayette said. "She never hesitated."

A key focus of Cotton's work was voter education, and teaching people how to read ballots, how to vote and the importance of voting, said Edwina Moss of Cleveland, Ohio, who was civil rights leader Andrew Young's administrative assistant.

"She worked a lot in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia — just all over — everywhere where there was a need," Moss said. "It was extremely important work; it was probably the core foundation of the organization."

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, Alabama, 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 very young, according to Cotton's online biography at the Dorothy Cotton Institute. 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 a 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.

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

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 113081

Reported Deaths: 3231
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds7823176
DeSoto676778
Harrison490283
Jackson439383
Rankin385986
Madison375793
Lee349079
Forrest298078
Jones285384
Washington253799
Lafayette244042
Lauderdale2398134
Lamar219038
Bolivar199477
Oktibbeha197654
Neshoba1820111
Lowndes175562
Panola167638
Leflore163287
Sunflower158849
Warren153255
Monroe146572
Pontotoc145219
Pike137256
Lincoln136856
Marshall136226
Copiah135736
Coahoma124036
Scott123829
Grenada120638
Yazoo119933
Simpson119549
Union116025
Leake113940
Holmes113760
Tate113639
Itawamba111325
Pearl River110559
Adams105243
Prentiss102919
Wayne99421
Alcorn96712
George95718
Covington94525
Marion93342
Tippah86521
Newton84927
Chickasaw83225
Winston82621
Tallahatchie82525
Tishomingo79741
Hancock78727
Attala78126
Clarke72750
Clay68421
Jasper67417
Walthall63327
Calhoun61812
Noxubee59617
Smith58516
Claiborne53416
Montgomery53123
Tunica52317
Yalobusha51314
Lawrence50414
Perry48423
Carroll46812
Greene45918
Stone45514
Amite42013
Humphreys41916
Quitman4176
Jefferson Davis40011
Webster36613
Wilkinson33120
Kemper32115
Benton3194
Sharkey28014
Jefferson27110
Franklin2373
Choctaw2036
Issaquena1064
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 154942

Reported Deaths: 2660
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson22720374
Mobile14405314
Tuscaloosa10066137
Montgomery9820196
Madison907894
Shelby715361
Lee646165
Baldwin644369
Marshall431048
Calhoun416059
Etowah412249
Morgan400033
Houston365532
DeKalb325428
Elmore312852
St. Clair283842
Limestone273630
Walker269993
Talladega259135
Cullman231024
Lauderdale212540
Jackson205515
Autauga202130
Franklin201731
Colbert193330
Russell19053
Blount187325
Dallas186027
Chilton182632
Escambia171428
Coffee16829
Covington166629
Dale163851
Chambers133043
Pike131313
Tallapoosa129587
Clarke127317
Marion105029
Butler99840
Barbour9969
Marengo98222
Winston90613
Geneva8447
Lawrence81131
Pickens81117
Randolph80514
Bibb80114
Hale74830
Cherokee72314
Clay72212
Lowndes70228
Henry6386
Bullock63717
Monroe63610
Washington62312
Crenshaw59830
Perry5816
Wilcox55912
Fayette55713
Conecuh55613
Cleburne5327
Macon53020
Sumter46821
Lamar4595
Choctaw38712
Greene34016
Coosa1993
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Few Clouds
84° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 86°
Columbus
Scattered Clouds
85° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 88°
Oxford
Clear
81° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 82°
Starkville
Scattered Clouds
81° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 82°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather