Ithaca resident Dorothy Cotton wasn't just the director of student activities at Cornell from 1982 to 1991; she worked side-by-side with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- the only woman on his executive staff -- until his assassination in 1968. She subsequently spent much of her life advancing civil rights as a strategist, community organizer, teacher and leader.
To carry her legacy forward, the Center for Transformative Action, a Cornell affiliate, has established the Dorothy Cotton Institute (DCI) to promote a global community for civil and human rights leadership.
At a standing room-only Dec. 19 event at the Ithaca Unitarian Church, hosted by DCI, to celebrate Cotton and her 2010 National Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum, City of Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson declared Dec. 19 Dorothy L. Cotton Day in Ithaca for Cotton's contributions to help change American society.
"Dorothy believes passionately that ordinary people can create extraordinary change," said Anke Wessels, executive director of the Center for Transformative Action at Cornell. "Thanks to her work as the director of the Citizenship Education Program (CEP) during the civil rights movement, the personal transformation and empowerment of ordinary individuals led to an unimaginable transformation in society. This is also exactly what's needed today if we are to find lasting solutions to the world's most pressing social problems."
DCI intends to become an internationally renowned education and resource center to "develop, nurture and train leaders for a global human rights movement; build a network and community of human rights leadership; and explore, share and promote practices that transform individuals and communities, opening new pathways to peace, justice and healing."
Cotton, 80, was education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King, where she contributed to a movement that transformed U.S. social and political life and the place people of color in civic engagement and leadership.
She was registered in the room next door to King at the Memphis motel where King was gunned down. With King, she had helped organize the student participation in the 1963 Birmingham movement and its children's crusade and accompanied King to Norway for his acceptance of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. After King died, she worked for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, at Cornell, and then founded a consulting company to focus on empowerment and social change.
Her work with CEP "helped ordinary people identify what was intolerable in their circumstances, envision the changes they desired, learn their civil rights, prepare for democratic engagement, and craft courageous strategies for organizing communities and speaking truth to power," according to the DCI website. "It fostered the transformation of often poorly educated and disenfranchised people from 'victims' to full 'citizens.' The victories won as a result of this work and the systemic and social changes attained through the growing power of the African-American electorate and its emerging leadership ultimately led to state and federal protections against discrimination in voting, access to public accommodations, housing and employment throughout the nation."
DCI will base its philosophy on Cotton's: practices of nonviolence, reconciliation and restoration, and grassroots leadership development. Its plans include connecting global civil rights movements and promoting civil and human rights and citizenship education through training and education programs; a fellowship program to serve as a think tank; a youth development program; and an education and visitors center.