Nonviolent, She Made a Difference

Dorothy Cotton (January 5, 1930–June 10, 2018) was born at the beginning of the depression. No one could have predicted the woman she became. Nonviolent, she made a difference in the U.S. civil rights movement and in the world.

Photo of Dorothy Cotton, nonviolent, she made a difference in the Civil Rights Movement
Thanks to the the Dorothy Cotton Institute for the image.

Early Life

Dorothy Lee Forman knew at an early age that she didn’t belong. She was an alien in time and place, destined to leave her hometown of Goldsboro, North Carolina. She speaks of the fighting and horrible things that happened in her neighborhood. But is unable to articulate exactly why she felt alien. Her mother died when she was three years old. 

Her father did the best he could to raise his three girls, but she remembers him as a harsh disciplinarian. She also remembers a pivotal event in her childhood. She was about ten years old when a white boy rode his bicycle down her unpaved street, kicking up dust and singing (to the tune of Deep in the Heart of Texas) “deep down in the heart of niggertown.” It made her angry, an anger she felt long into adulthood. She says it gave her “a consciousness about the wrongness of the system.”

A Mentor

Her next pivotal encounter was her high school English teacher. Ms Rosa Gray became a surrogate mother whom Dorothy never wanted to disappoint. Ms Gray helped Dorothy get into Shaw University. She also got Dorothy two jobs, one cleaning the teachers’ dormitory. A teacher in the dormitory, Dr. Daniel, became President of Virginia State University. He took Dorothy along as his housekeeper. She continued her schooling at VSU.

While attending VSU, Dorothy met George Cotton. They married after her graduation. 

An Introduction to the Civil Rights Movement

It was while she was in college, Dorothy first attended a local church. Wyatt T. Walker, the regional head for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led that church. Not long after that, Walker asked her to help organize and train children to picket and march for the movement. She says she didn’t really know how to teach it but she knew how to be peaceful.  

Through Walker, she met Martin Luther King Jr. When King asked Walker to move to Atlanta to help form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Walker brought two of his trusted assistants along. One of those was Dorothy.

Her Life’s Work

MLK Jr asked her to help a troubled school, Highlander Folk School. And there she met Septima Clark. Together they created the Citizenship Education Program. That became a large part of her life’s work.

The CEP focused on training disenfranchised people the importance of civic and political participation. They taught and organized methods for voter registration in southern states where requirements purposefully excluded the illiterate and undereducated. They also taught how to take part in nonviolent protest. “This program was one of the most effective but least well-known components of the movement.” 

She continued at the SCLC for three years after Dr. King’s assassination. After that, she became the Southern Regional Director for ACTION, the federal agency for volunteer programs and worked under the Carter administration. She was Vice-President for Field Operations at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Change, then she was Director of Student Activities at Cornell University. and later she founded her own consulting company. She traveled and taught based on her philosophy and practices of “nonviolence, reconciliation and restoration, and grassroots leadership development.” 

Ms Cotton received the National Freedom Award from the Nation Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee in July 2010. 

She wrote a book, If Your Back’s not Bent, published in 2012. 

Ms. Cotton died on June 10, 2018 in Ithaca, NY.

Learn More

 Learn more about Dorothy at the Dorothy Cotton Institute. Her oral history is available online at the Library of Congress.

She Made a Difference

An influential figure in the Civil Rights movement, Ms Dorothy Cotton remains relatively unknown. One of the unsung heroes, a role model, and a leader, she persisted. In her book she quotes the Negro National Anthem, saying she has come “over a way that with blood and with tears has been watered.” She may have walked the bloody road. She may have shed tears. But non-violent, she made a difference.

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