Dorothy Cotton: Lessons in Servant Leadership and Movement Building

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Dear friend Dorothy Cotton, who died last month at 88, worked tirelessly to do something about the injustices around her that she knew were wrong. She had a joyous, infectious spirit that made others want to join her. Like Septima Clark, Ella Baker, and other great women leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, she is too little known compared to some of her close male colleagues like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Ambassador Andrew Young. But as Education Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Dorothy Cotton was an indispensable member of SCLC’s inner circle. And her attitude about leadership has lessons for us right now.

She might have seemed an unlikely “leadership” candidate growing up in Goldsboro, North Carolina with her three sisters and their widower father, a tobacco factory worker who “didn’t know what college was.” She couldn’t remember ever seeing a book at home. But she worked her way through college and while at Virginia State College in Petersburg, Virginia she joined civil rights leader Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker’s church, where she quickly started getting involved in local movement activities. Dorothy Cotton eventually became secretary of the Petersburg Improvement Association founded by Rev. Walker.

When Dr. King asked Rev. Walker to come to Atlanta and become SCLC’s first full time executive director in 1960, Rev. Walker asked Dorothy Cotton to go too. She originally intended to stay and help for just a few weeks but as she wrote in her book If Your Back’s Not Bent, she realized “our work with SCLC was not just a job, it was a life commitment.”

As SCLC’s Education Director she ran its lauded Citizenship Education Program, training over 6,000 people from across the South in weeklong workshops on voter education, literacy, and nonviolent protest tactics to prepare them to return home and spread the movement. SCLC built on the work the very great Septima Clark started at Highlander Folk School teaching people to run Citizenship Education Schools in their own communities. Dorothy Cotton had a wonderful angelic voice and was known for using music at every meeting to teach and inspire. She described their mission as “[helping] people realize that they have within themselves the stuff it takes to bring about a new order.”

She accompanied Dr. King on his final trip to Memphis and later worked at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change before beginning another phase of leadership as a university administrator. Today the Dorothy Cotton Institute, part of the Center for Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University, continues her legacy by training a new generation to foster and protect human rights and achieve social change through civic participation.

She loved working with students and we were grateful that she generously shared her time and wisdom and gifted singing with young and older leaders at the Children’s Defense Fund-Haley Farm and other meetings including at the Rockefeller Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy where women gathered from around the world. At one session she emphasized that action doesn’t always have to stem from a formal plan:

“On a lot of college campuses where I do workshops and talk, some young folk think us old folk had a blueprint…We sat up almost all night sometimes strategizing. We would take an action, and then we would see what kind of reaction we got, and then we would do the next action based on the reaction we got. I just want to say, a movement is dynamic. It’s evolving. It’s changing. Nobody had a blueprint, and don’t let anybody tell you that we did.” She added: “Action springs up in a lot of different places at the same time…We were sick and tired of being sick and tired, and some folk took action and we learned as we went.” She always reminded us that we can’t wait for leaders – leadership emerges from action.

Her words should be an encouragement to the wave of brave and committed students, other young people, and those of all ages in communities across the country who are speaking out today against gun violence, horrific immigration policies tearing children from parents, and a list of other injustices. Dorothy Cotton would love the resistance springing up across our nation right now and it must continue and grow and grow. Like Dorothy, we must stand up and protest as so many are doing for as long as it takes when we see rampant injustice all around us. When we see something wrong, don’t ask why doesn’t somebody do something about it, but why don’t I do something. This is how transforming movements happen – person by person speaking out and saying no against unjust policies.

Marian Wright Edelman
Website | + posts

Marian Wright Edelman is an American activist for children's rights. She has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for her entire professional life. She is president emerita and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.

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