Cotton had been among a small number of women in leadership positions at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the civil rights era, and led the Atlanta-based civil rights group’s Citizenship Education Program.
Xernona Clayton, who was King’s office manager in Atlanta and organised protest marches and fundraisers, remembers her contribution to the movement well. “She had a beautiful voice, and when things got tense, Dorothy was the one who would start up a song to relieve the tension,” said Clayton. “She had such a calming influence in her personality. She had a personality that would lend itself to people listening to her.”
After joing the movement, Cotton became one of King’s closest colleagues and worked at the SCLC for more than a decade. She also commanded respect from her male counterparts within the group, according to Bernard Lafayette Jr., a long-time civil rights leader who is now chairman of the SCLC’s national board.
When King and others ventured to parts of the Deep South that had a reputation for violence against blacks, Cotton was fearless, Lafayette recalled in an interview. “She was very courageous,” he said. “She never hesitated.”
A key focus of Cotton’s work was voter education, and teaching people how to read ballots, how to vote and the importance of voting, said Edwina Moss of Cleveland, Ohio, who was civil rights leader Andrew Young’s administrative assistant.
“She worked a lot in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia — just all over — everywhere where there was a need,” Moss said. “It was extremely important work; it was probably the core foundation of the organisation.”
After King’s death, Cotton remained active in civil rights and education, later serving as an administrator at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
She also spoke about the need to work on King’s legacy. During a commemoration of his death in 1993, she said that people needed 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 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.
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.
She met King when he preached at the church she attended in Petersburg, Virginia, and was invited shortly afterwards to join the staff at the SCLC.
Cotton died in a retirement community in New York.