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Dorothy Cotton, civil rights pioneer, dies at age 88

Dorothy Cotton, civil rights pioneer, dies at age 88

She was a top official at Southern Christian Leadership Conference

ATLANTA  — 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.

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.

A small private burial and larger public memorial were being planned in Ithaca but details hadn’t been finalized.

 

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