Ithaca resident and author Dorothy Cotton has been chosen to receive this year’s Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. to recognize a lifelong dedication to the civil rights movement.
Born into a poverty-stricken home in Goldsboro, N. C. in 1930, Cotton was inspired by her high school English teacher who encouraged her to attend college. After moving to Virginia, Cotton met Martin Luther King Jr. She developed a close friendship with King and became actively involved in the civil rights movement, working as the education director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and then as the southern regional director for the Federal Volunteer Program Agency.
Contributing Writer Kelsey Husnick spoke with Cotton about her journey to becoming one of this year’s Freedom Award recipients.
Kelsey Husnick: Can you tell me about your childhood in Goldsboro?
Dorothy Cotton: My dad was a hard working man who worked in the tobacco fields raising three girls all by himself because my mother died when I was three years old. So my childhood was a struggle and a challenge. I think of it as a hard childhood because we were alone with just my father, and he worked so hard.
KH: Had you always imagined yourself going to college?
DC: My English teacher actually was the reason I got a chance to go to college and she was very important in my life. My dad, I’m not even sure he knew what college was, but he certainly couldn’t have afforded to pay for college fees. I had three jobs, thanks to my teacher, working my way through college. I’m not sure that I was focused on college. What I am sure of is that I needed to be in a different kind of neighborhood, because the neighborhood that I was born in was a very rough neighborhood, and there were no positive role models around.
KH: You read a poem at an event sponsored by your church when Martin Luther King was speaking. How did it feel to speak in his presence?
DC: Well I didn’t read it — I recited the poem. I knew it by heart and I still know it. And I guess I’ve always had a little ham in me. I wasn’t shy about that or hesitant. See, at the time we didn’t know that he was going to become the world famous icon that he became. Nobody knew that.
KH: Were you interested in civil rights before meeting Dr. King?
DC: Yeah, I’m not sure that we used the term at the time, but we had a society where black and white folk couldn’t be in the same place. We couldn’t go in places where white folk went. Black folk couldn’t use the public library, and we were working against that segregated system, which is the reason we invited Martin Luther King to come. We had noticed his work.
KH: How did you first become involved in the civil rights movement and start working with Dr. King?
DC: Dr. King said I need you to move to Atlanta, and I told my husband, “Well, I’ll go down. Rev. Walker wants me to go and help them, and I’ll go help them for about six months.” I told George Cotton, my husband, that I’d be gone in about six months, but I stayed 23 years. The point I’m making is that the movement became my life.
KH: What can you tell us about Martin Luther King, since you were such good friends?
DC: Dr. King had a wonderful sense of humor. I could go on and on with stories and jokes that he told, but we just don’t have the time.
KH: What did your job consist of as the education director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference?
DC: Education meant that us black folk who had lived as victims for generations had to un-brainwash ourselves. The main program that we had at SCLC was citizen education to help folks understand the importance of having political power. People were [at the training programs] for about four or five days, and we would pay their way to bus people down there. We ran the program for about eight years and our purpose was to help black people discover their power.
KH: What brought you to Ithaca, and what have you been doing with your time here?
DC: I came here to work at Cornell, and now I like to share a lot since I left my position at Cornell. I do a lot of moving about [the country] and eight or nine other countries as well. I have also been getting very serious about writing a book about my part of the [civil rights] story. A problem is that people think that the civil rights movement just has to do with marches… and the first thing I say when I get up to the podium after being announced as someone who marched with Dr. King is, “I really want you all to understand that we didn’t just march.” That really motivated me to get this book done. The book is titled “If Your Back’s Not Bent.”