Dorothy Cotton, civil rights leader and Ithaca resident, honored as family and friends sing during her funeral.
Kate Collins / Staff video
The late Dorothy Cotton is remembered by many as a woman who was the educational director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an individual who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King as a member of his inner circle.
However, she was remembered as a mentor, an icon, a feisty feminist, and a cherished aunt during a public memorial at Cornell University’s Bailey Hall Saturday afternoon.
“She was an educator extraordinaire,” said Cal Walker, the emcee for the memorial.
Cotton’s family and friends, and residents attended the memorial to honor her legacy and to remember the beloved individual who has been a part of their lives. Hundreds of people were in attendance.
Cotton died at the age of 88 on June 10 at the retirement community Kendal at Ithaca.
Rev. William Barber II, a member of the NAACP’s national board, said Cotton was a gift of God and God wanted his gift back … “in the land of glory where every day is Sunday and it has no end.”
During his speech, Barber provided significant context to a brief summary of Cotton’s life.
Cotton was born in the small textile town of Goldsboro, N.C., which was known for its segregated mental institutions, according to Barber.
“Goldsboro was seen as a 20th century Nazareth in which nothing good can come from Goldsboro,” Barber said.
Despite the racial hatred and traumatic acts being committed against African Americans, Cotton confronted the injustices head on.
“Dorothy Cotton did not look away from Dixie, but she looked right at it,” Barber said. “Rather than look away or run away, she faced it.”
Cotton implemented citizenship schools when it was dangerous to teach African-Americans. The citizenship schools increased the number of African Americans who could vote.
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“Dorothy understood that white people and brown people can’t have full citizenship until African-Americans can have full citizenship, because as Dr. King said, ‘we are all bound together,” Barber said. “There would have been no President Barack Obama without those citizenship schools … We would not be where we are if it was not for the citizenship schools of Dorothy Cotton.”
Although there has been progress, racism and injustices continue to exist.
“We are reviving the poor people’s campaign and reviving citizenship schools because what Dorothy Cotton gave is needed now,” Barber said.
In addition to praising Cotton’s work as an educator and her work on citizenship, Cornell President Martha Pollack said Cotton was an inspiration because of her commitment to literacy, nonviolent protest and progressivism.
Dorothy Cotton sings freedom songs including “Yonder Come Day’ and recalls the 1964 flight with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Jeff McAdory/The Commercial Appeal
“As we all remember her and these facts about her, Dorothy Cotton can still be alive today,” Pollack said.
In addition to the speeches, the memorial became very lively on several occasions when audience members got on their feet to sing “This Little Light of Mine” as well as to clap along with several songs.
The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers sung at various points during the memorial. The chorus was founded by Baruch Whitehead, an associate professor of music education at Ithaca College who named the choir after Cotton in 2010 to protect her legacy.
Just as the music was very lively, passionate speeches included calls to action.
“I call on each of you to commit today to be a champion of Dorothy’s legacy,” said Kirby Edmonds, program coordinator for the Dorothy Cotton Institute. “If you are not registered to vote, register to vote, then vote. Urge your children to register to vote and vote. Urge your neighbors to register to vote and vote. It’s accurate to say change is inevitable.”
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