Dorothy Cotton’s life as an activist began at Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg where civil rights activist Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker was the pastor. Walker was also the leader of the Petersburg branch of the NAACP. Cotton became his secretary and organized protests to desegregate a public library and the whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth’s in 1959.
The following year, she met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King for the first time when he spoke at Walker’s church. Cotton and King were introduced during a dinner at Walker’s house. King subsequently asked Walker to join him in Atlanta as the new executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He agreed, and Cotton went along with her employer Walker to Atlanta.
Cotton would soon become the only woman in King’s inner circle. She was also the highest-ranking woman in King’s SCLC, typed King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, traveled with him when he went to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and was with him in Memphis hours before his assassination on April 4, 1968.
Cotton was so close to King that Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer David Garrow recently described her as King’s “constant paramour” and “the most important woman in King’s life.” Many historians have also described Cotton as King’s “other wife”. But who really was Cotton?
Born Dorothy Lee Foreman on June 9, 1930, in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Cotton’s mother, Maggie Foreman, died when Cotton was three. Cotton’s father, an abusive man called Claude, raised her and her three sisters amid the Great Depression. He often beat them with a belt, a piece of wood or a switch. “I recall nothing nurturing in my home environment,” Cotton wrote in the book “If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement”.
“When he wasn’t in a mood to start striking, he would silently glare in anger and hostility, paralyzing us with fear.”
Cotton enrolled in Shaw University, in Raleigh, in 1948 and then transferred to Virginia State, in Petersburg, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English and library science. Later, she earned a master’s degree in speech therapy from Boston University. But while at Virginia State, she met George Cotton, who worked in the motor pool at Fort Lee, an Army base in Virginia. They got married but later separated when Cotton left Petersburg to work for the SCLC in Atlanta; they never divorced.
It was while in Atlanta that Cotton had a bigger role in the civil rights movement. Named director of the SCLC’s Citizen Education Program, she helped encourage disenfranchised African Americans to register to vote. She also helped train children to participate in demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama and organized protests in St. Augustine, Florida. Cotton suffered permanent hearing damage in her left ear after being attacked at a protest in Florida. All in all, she trained about 8,000 grassroots activists, according to her autobiography, “If Your Back’s Not Bent”.
Amid these protests, teachings and road trips, she became closer to King. As an article in The Conversation put it: “They shared a deep love of poetry. When he’d spend the night at her place, she recalled how he would occasionally wake up in the middle of the night to recite verses. Her Atlanta apartment became a refuge from the demands and pressure of his growing fame.”
On April 3, 1963, Cotton with King and others arrived in Memphis to support the city’s sanitation workers’ strike. Cotton and King both stayed at the Lorraine Motel. She was assigned room 307, next to King’s room 306. King would deliver his famous “Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple in front of a crowd of striking workers that evening. Cotton didn’t go to the event. She decided to get some fried chicken for King so he could eat after his return to the Lorraine Motel from the event.
But King did not show up. Unbeknown to Cotton, King had been at the home of civil rights activist Tarlease Matthews that evening. He also spent some time with Kentucky State Senator Georgia Davis Powers. At around 7 the next morning when King showed up at Cotton’s room, the two began fighting, civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy stated in his autobiography “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down”. Angry that she had waited for King all night, Cotton left Memphis on a 1 p.m. flight to Atlanta. Hours later, King was shot dead as he stood on the motel’s second-floor balcony.
It would take over two years for Cotton to get over King’s death. She left the SCLC, worked at various community organizations throughout the 1970s and moved to Ithaca, New York, to work as the Director of Student Activities at Cornell University in 1982. She retired in 1991 and opened a consulting firm in Ithaca. Cotton died on June 10, 2018, at a retirement home in Ithaca. She was 88.
The Center for Transformative Action, a Cornell affiliate, established the Dorothy Cotton Institute in 2010 to carry her legacy forward. “Dorothy Cotton inspired many at Cornell and in the greater Ithaca area through her tireless work in the civil rights movement and as an advocate for diversity and inclusion,” President Martha E. Pollack said after her death in 2018.
“With her passing, our community has lost a powerful role model and a dear friend, who devoted her life to creating a more just and equitable world.”