Civil rights leader and icon Dorothy Cotton, who helped educate black Americans about their rights and worked with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., died at the age of 88.
Cotton died at an Ithaca, New York, retirement community on Sunday afternoon, the Ithaca Journal reported. Her cause of death was not specified, but a family friend and spokesperson said she bad been battling a recent illness.
A North Carolina native, Cotton first met King in 1960 when he preached at a church she attended in Virginia. The two began working together with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which organized peaceful protests and worked for the rights of black Americans during the civil rights era. Cotton held a leading role in the group as the educational director ― one of the few high-level positions for women in the SCLC at the time.
Cotton is described as an “unsung hero” for the civil rights movement on her eponymous institute’s website. She led the Citizenship Education Program, which worked to help “ordinary people identify what was intolerable in their circumstances, envision the change they desired, learn their civil rights [and] prepare for democratic engagement” and to help foster “the transformation of often poorly educated and disenfranchised people from ‘victims’ to full citizens.”
Cotton told NPR in a 2013 interview that during the civil rights era, her work wasn’t often publicized because it “would have been shut down [for] teaching all those old black folk that they are citizens.”
The dedicated civil servant put herself through college working as a housekeeper for the university president at Shaw University before she earned an undergraduate degree from Virginia State University and a master’s degree in speech therapy from Boston University.
“She had a beautiful voice, and when things got tense, Dorothy was the one who would start up a song to relieve the tension,” Xernona Clayton, who was King’s office manager in Atlanta and organized protest marches and fundraisers, told The Associated Press.
“She had such a calming influence in her personality,” Clayton added. “She had a personality that would lend itself to people listening to her.”
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