SCLC staff, courtesy Dorothy Cotton Institute

I traveled to Ithaca, New York, earlier this month to attend the public memorial service for Dorothy Cotton, the under-recognized educator, organizer, and singer/musician. Her legacy is little known despite having been the only woman to hold a leadership position at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights luminaries.

The three-hour memorial service was a beautiful ceremony of music (led by the magnificent Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers choir), multimedia tributes (especially this impressive 17-minute video compilation that had just been created by Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute), and personal testimonials.

Five family members of Dorothy Cotton at the Ithaca NY memorial in August 2018, by Ethan Vesely-Flad.

Particularly touching, to me, were the memories shared by Cotton’s family members (several spoke at a reception after the main event), who had traveled from throughout North America to attend this gathering of hundreds of admirers. There were four generations of family members present, and they poignantly paid recognition to the “Aunt Dorothy” they knew outside of her movement work. It was clear that, in the midst of her decades of relentless activism and teaching, she also maintained a continuing commitment to her family.

Another special address was given by Aljosie Aldrich Harding, who had known Dorothy for many years. Their friendship deepened as Aljosie and Vincent Harding became a couple (they married in December 2013, and he died unexpectedly the following year); in partnership with James and Philip Lawson, the three worked hard to build the National Council of Elders. They all shared a deep commitment to passing on the wisdom and counsel of older activists to emerging generations of change-makers.

Dorothy Cotton and Vincent Harding receive FOR’s MLK Award in 2013.

Indeed, as Rev. Kristin Stoneking (FOR’s executive director from 2013-17) wrote upon hearing the news of Cotton’s death:

“In 2013, when we travelled to Ithaca to present Dr. Cotton with the FOR Martin Luther King, Jr. Award, we were accompanied by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation Fellows, who were spending the fall and winter learning at FOR-USA. Dorothy delighted in these young people, hailing from three different continents. Her vision of liberation was always global, founded on a deep learning process that held human and civil rights as inalienable, and informed through personal experience and consciousness.”

Vincent Harding is flanked by Kristin Stoneking, Lucas Johnson, and IFOR Fellows at 2013 award ceremony, courtesy DCI.

I had been unable to participate in that intergenerational FOR delegation in 2013 (at which Vincent Harding was also honored — and held just a couple weeks before his and Aljosie’s wedding ceremony), so it was a blessing to travel to Ithaca this month filled with the words and spirits of many FOR members who had learned of Cotton’s death in June.

Three lengthy personal reflections are especially worthy to publish here. The first, by my colleague Rev. Lucas Johnson (international coordinator of the International FOR network), appeared in Waging Nonviolence.

The second, which likewise speaks to Cotton’s deep love of young people, is from Pat Clark (FOR’s executive director from 2002-06). She wrote:

I had the privilege of serving as the Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation when Dorothy Cotton was on the National Council. We knew that it was an honor to have her wisdom and lived experience to draw on as we discussed FOR’s peace and justice work. We had the added treat of hearing her break out in song—often linking the civil rights movement to the ongoing struggles.

As important as Dorothy’s presence at FOR was to me, I had the added opportunity of hosting her at my home during those National Council meetings. That meant my family had incredible moments discussing and learning about the civil rights movement from an icon. She would talk to them about the work she did side by side with Dr. King, about the importance of nonviolence, and their roles in the work that needs to continue. As every great educator is able to do, Dorothy was also always open and interested in learning and was interested in what my teenage children were thinking and experiencing.

I remember clearly when Dorothy, who was around 72 at the time, had a conversation with them about hip hop music. Dorothy was pretty disparaging of this music she considered filled with vulgarity and misogyny. My children had a different perspective and invited her to go go see the hip-hop movie Brown Sugar with them. We go off to the theater which was filled with loud teenagers. Dorothy watched the movie intently and acknowledged to my kids afterwards how much she enjoyed it. My son Rocky later made her a hip-hop CD which she received enthusiastically.

For me Dorothy was a great civil rights icon, a great educator and activist, but most importantly a warm, decent human being who always led with an open heart and mind, willing to engage with anyone working for a more just world.

Dr. Lili Baxter (chairperson of FOR’s National Council from 2002-04), offers this heartfelt personal tribute to Dorothy, drawing especially on their collaborative work at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change for several years before reconnecting at FOR. Baxter wrote:

Dorothy Cotton is gone. Her radiant spirit has left our world and everything looks a little dimmer.

Although we both served on the FOR National Council in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dorothy and I first met at The King Center in Atlanta in the 1980s, where we both taught nonviolence. Later, we were roommates at gatherings in Japan and Birmingham, and sometimes she stayed with me when passing through Atlanta.

At the King Center, Dorothy led workshops on the philosophy and methods of nonviolence, often partnering with Richard Deats. They were perfect together: he low-key and understated, she vivid and expansive. I stood in awe of Dorothy – her stately presence, open smile, and strength of personality.

At conferences for college students, she mesmerized all present with her stories and songs. In her rich alto, she inspired and encouraged. “We are building up a new world. We are building up a new world. We are building up a new world. Builders must be strong.” And we all believed we could.

Like few people I’ve ever seen, she would conjure up a better world before our very eyes – a multiracial world of social and economic justice, equality, and peace; a world of culture and beauty and promise.  And we – yes, all of us – could make it happen.

Dorothy did not have an easy early life. Her mother died when she was 3 years old, and her father, who raised her and her three sisters, was often violent and abusive. She knew, deep in her bones, that life could be harsh. But she also knew, deep in her soul, that it could be kind and beautiful. 

During the civil rights movement, Dorothy led citizenship education classes for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She must have been a mesmerizing teacher when explaining the grandeur and possibilities of democracy, citizenship, and the U.S. Constitution. Her task was not an easy one; those were scary times, and violent retribution for registering to vote were commonplace. But Dorothy, along with her SCLC colleagues, transformed the South, our nation, and ultimately, the world.

I loved being with her, loved watching her create spiritual spaces around herself, energy fields that enlivened and embraced. In the movement of an arm, in the flash of a smile, in the commanding timber of her voice she created beloved community.  It was palpable. Real. A circle of learning, music, spirituality, and grace which could become – if we never gave up the struggle – a daily possibility. Few could inspire like Dorothy Cotton.

Thank you, Dorothy, you showed us the way. It’s up to those you leave behind to keep on keeping on.  

Cotton with the family of Matt Meyer and Meg Starr, April 2018, courtesy of the family.

Last but by no means least, Matt Meyer (current co-chair of FOR’s National Council) had the opportunity to visit Cotton in Ithaca this April, just weeks before she became ill and then passed from this life. As a result of their time together, Cotton welcomed FOR to use her name in outreach to highlight our continuing commitment to intergenerational “mutual mentoring” and movement building. This Mother’s Day message paid tribute to that vision and mission.

Emboldened by her spirit, passion, and the music she always brought forth, I’m humming “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” Thank you, sister-friend-aunt Dorothy, for all the ways you taught, encouraged, and challenged us to make a better world.

Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers perform at the August 2018 memorial service, by Ethan Vesely-Flad.

Dorothy Cotton, presente!