Remembering a Civil Rights Foremother

Dorothy Cotton teaching a citizenship education class in Alabama, 1966.”

~New York Times from the Bob Fitch Archive/Stanford University Library

Dorothy Cotton 1930 – 2018

Her Pioneering Work for Voting Rights is Our Way Forward (Again)

June 13, 2018

At the time of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which ensured that people of color throughout the country (and especially in the South) could not have their right to vote infringed, Dorothy Cotton was a close associate of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the highest-ranking woman in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in her position as the director of the Citizenship Education Program.

A key focus of Cotton’s work was voter education, teaching people how to read ballots, how to vote and the importance of voting, said Edwina Moss, of Cleveland, Ohio, who was civil-rights leader Andrew Young’s administrative assistant.

Cotton developed and led the Atlanta-based Citizen Education Program, which trained disenfranchised people to become more civically and politically involved, and organized methods for voter registration and non-violent protest.

The program “empowered African-Americans in the South to register to vote and exercise their full rights,” Bradley George of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports. People trained in the citizenship education program, or CEP, not only gained the tools to claim their individual rights, but often went on to participate in major demonstrations.

“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,” the Dorothy Cotton Institute writes. “It fostered the transformation of often poorly educated and disenfranchised people from ‘victims’ to full ‘citizens.’ “

“People had to … un-brainwash themselves because this sense of being less than other people was so hardwired into the culture, into the psyche of black people. And what was hardwired into psyche of white people was a sense of superiority,” she said. “While all of that had to be torn down, that still does not mean that we have reached the Promised Land. It means that we have put some more cracks in that wall of segregation, separation, American-style apartheid.”


Current Context, Renewed Importance

Ms. Cotton’s heroic accomplishments would deserve our recognition, tribute, and thanks at any time. But it is important to note that her death came just one day before the controversial 5-4 split Supreme Court decision to uphold Ohio’s voter purges, which has been described as “a giant step backward on voter rights.” As Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissenting opinion:

“Communities that are disproportionately affected by unnecessarily harsh registration laws should not tolerate efforts to marginalize their influence in the political process, nor should allies who recognize blatant unfairness stand idly by. Today’s decision forces these communities and their allies to be even more proactive and vigilant in holding their States accountable and working to dismantle the obstacles they face in exercising the fundamental right to vote.”

And remember that this narrow vote follows 2013’s Supreme Court decision that “effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a[nother] 5-4 vote, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.”

In this context, we strongly advocate that we do more than simply honor her memory, but that we work together to rejuvenate her legacy under today’s challenges. As she said at a 1993 commemoration of Dr. King’s death, the work of racial equity is our responsibility:

“Rosa Parks didn’t wait to see what everybody else was doing. She just did it. We should ask ourselves what we’re doing. It starts with ourselves, our families, and our churches.”

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