Dorothy Cotton-Short Biography

Dorothy Cotton Biography

Dorothy Lee Foreman (was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina. After her mother’s death when she was three, she and her three sisters were raised by her father, Claude Foreman, a tobacco factory worker. She attended Shaw University in Raleigh, supporting herself working three jobs. She transferred to Virginia State College in Petersburg, graduating with a degree in English and Library Science in 1955.

After graduation she married George Cotton.  She earned a Master’s degree in Speech Therapy in 1960 from Boston University.  While pursuing her Masters, Dorothy remained involved in the Civil Rights struggle, returning often to her home in Petersburg, Virginia where her minister, Wyatt Tee Walker, invited a young minister from Montgomery to speak at his church. That young minister was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had led the successful Montgomery bus boycott. Shortly thereafter Dr. King invited Ms. Cotton to join the staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) based in Atlanta, Georgia, where she served for the next twelve years as National Director of Education. She was the only female member of the Executive Staff, and became one of Dr. King’s closest colleagues. Her position in his inner circle put her at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement as an educator, planner, activist and leader.

The Civil Rights Movement was the crucible in which a life dedicated to learning, teaching and inspiring others was forged. Her most important work was the development and leadership of the Citizenship Education Program, training disenfranchised people in the importance of civic and political participation and the organizing methods for voter registration and non-violent protest. This program was one of the most effective but least well-known components of the movement.

Dorothy Cotton continued at the SCLC for three years after Dr. King’s assassination and later became Southern Regional Director for ACTION, the federal agency for volunteer programs under the Carter administration.  She was Vice-President for Field Operations at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Change.  From 1982 to 1991 she was Director of Student Activities at Cornell University. She later founded her own consulting company, Dorothy Cotton & Associates, conducting seminars on leadership development, individual empowerment and social change. She is also one of the founding members of the National Citizenship School, devoted to teaching people how to create publicly accountable institutions that reflect high democratic ideals and enhance the capacity to live a meaningful life. Among her many awards, Ms. Cotton has received three honorary doctorate degrees.

Ms. Cotton is nearing completion of her book: “If Your Back’s Not Bent”—the movement from victim to victory.


-Undergraduate work, Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina

-BA in English and Library Science, Virginia State College in Petersburg, Virginia, 1955

-Master’s degree in Speech Therapy, Boston University, 1960

Dorothy Cotton, the CEP for the 21st Century and the Dorothy Cotton Institute

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.