Dorothy Cotton is one of the most important unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and her accomplishments are a testament to the essential but often overlooked role of women in that and other liberation struggles. As Education Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) her leadership contributed significantly to a movement that has altered the course of social and political life in the United States and transformed the place of African Americans and all people of color in civic engagement and leadership.
The Citizenship Education Program (CEP) led by Dorothy Cotton (with a team including Andrew Young, Bernice Robinson, Ben Mack, Victoria Gray Adams, BJ Johnson, Annell Ponder and Septima Clark), was a critical component of the SCLC’s overall organizing strategy. The 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. 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.
Ms. Cotton’s lifework – based on the philosophy and practices of nonviolence, reconciliation and restoration, and grassroots leadership development – offers valuable models for human rights education, practice, and leadership, upon which the Dorothy Cotton Institute will build.