25 May

Civil rights leader Dorothy Cotton remembered with songs, calls to action

first_img ITHACA, N.Y. — At a celebration of Dorothy Cotton’s legacy on Saturday, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II opened his remarks with a call-and-response: “Forward together, not one step back.”Cotton’s family, friends, neighbors and colleagues spoke of honoring the civil rights leader and educator by carrying on her work. Hundreds of people packed Bailey Hall for the celebration Saturday.“She doesn’t need us to stand here and praise her,” said longtime friend and civil rights activist Aljosie Aldrich Harding. Instead, she asked the gathered community to think about “how you can take the spirit of Dorothy Cotton and the lessons from Dorothy Cotton and the spiritual power of Dorothy Cotton and teach and share in your home and in your community.”Cotton, who passed away in June at the age of 88, dedicated her life to advancing civil and human rights. She worked as the educational director for the SCLC and led its Citizenship Education Program throughout the 1960s. In Ithaca, where she lived for more than three decades, she partnered with colleges and community organizations to continue her advocacy.The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers perform at the celebration of the life of Dorothy Cotton in Bailey Hall. (Cornell University Photography) The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers perform at the celebration of the life of Dorothy Cotton in Bailey Hall. (Cornell University Photography)Speakers at the memorial emphasized her tireless energy, her role as a woman in a male-dominated movement and her love of music.“I couldn’t honor Dorothy Cotton without having a sing-along,” said Baruch Whitehead, who directs the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers. The choir, which is dedicated to the preservation of “negro spirituals,” sang throughout the program. At multiple points the audience joined in.Rev. Barber has been crisscrossing the country as co-chair of the revived Poor People’s Campaign, but made time for the trip to Ithaca to honor a woman who he called “my sister, my mentor, my hero, my woman apostle.”He evoked Cotton’s legacy by using music to bring the audience to a fever pitch. “If the spirit says move, you got to move!” he began, citing a spiritual song that Cotton was known to sing.“So how do we honor Dorothy? If we want to honor Dorothy then let us say in our time, when things need to be done right now, if the spirit says march, let’s march y’all. If the spirit says go to jail, let’s go to jail y’all. If the spirit says take on Donald Trump, let’s take on Donald Trump y’all. If the spirit says vote, let’s vote y’all. If the spirit says stand up for freedom in the 21st century, let’s stand up y’all. That’s the only way to honor Dorothy.”Celebration of the life of Dorothy Cotton in Bailey Hall. (Cornell University Photography) Celebration of the life of Dorothy Cotton in Bailey Hall. (Cornell University Photography)Rev. Barber speculated that Cotton would tell people fed up with current politics “to stop fussing and fighting … and to organize and deal with it.” He also called on attendees to “remember and commend” Cotton as a woman who was often overshadowed by the men around her. Several speakers emphasized Cotton’s role as a woman in a movement dominated by men. Harding said, “Dorothy Cotton did not help Dr. King, or help this person. Dorothy Cotton was a leader in her own right.” Harding encouraged women to follow Cotton’s example. “I want to call on the women to step forward and take our rightful place,” she said.Planning committee member Peyi Soyinka-Airewele described Cotton as a “feisty feminist” and said, “She’d be delighted because we’re in a community … where we have three female, formidable college presidents.”The presidents of Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College all acknowledged Cotton’s commitment to education and community dialogue. Cornell’s Martha Pollack said Cotton was “a role model for countless other women, inspiring them to teach and to lead.”(l.-r.) Aljosie Aldrich Harding, long-time friend of Dorothy Cotton and a National Advisor to the Dorothy Cotton Institute; Elder Gwen Hinton-Perry, niece of Dorothy Cotton; Shirley Collado, president of Ithaca College; Martha Pollack, president of Cornell University; and Orinthia T. Montague, president of Tompkins Cortland Community College. (Cornell University Photography)Ithaca College President Shirley Collado said Cotton had “a resounding voice that encouraged dialogue, facilitated empowerment and brought many, many people together.”Orinthia Montague, president of Tompkins Cortland Community College, called Cotton “a champion for education, political activism, and supporting humanity in all rights,” and credited Cotton with creating opportunities for women of color to lead.Cotton’s niece, Elder Gwen Hinton-Perry, spoke to her aunt’s motivational role in the family. She said her aunt “always wanted more for her family,” and shared an anecdote about a time when Cotton and her sisters had dinner in a hotel restaurant.“One of the sisters said, ‘Wow this is such a beautiful place. I would love to work here one day.’ Aunt Dorothy corrected her and said, ‘Why can’t you aspire to own this place?’ Her mindset was always over the top,” Hinton-Perry said. “If she was going somewhere, nothing stopped her.”The three-hour memorial featured letters and acknowledgments from leaders and organizations across the country. Ambassador Andrew Young, who worked closely with Cotton at the SCLC, wrote that she was his “sister and mother superior.” Activist Marian Wright Edelman wrote that Cotton’s legacy should teach us “if you see something wrong, sometimes you may need to start an action all by yourself.”Amidst all these calls to action, it was the music that brought people to their feet.Minister Nelson Watkins, who worked with Cotton on the annual Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage, remembered how she described the crescendo of weeklong citizenship education sessions. As participants embraced their rights as citizens, she told him, the songs progressed “from ones of sorrow on Monday to freedom songs on Friday.”The Jubilee Singers began the memorial with a plaintive song. Its lyrics narrated a search for peace and strength “in the time of the storm.” They ended the ceremony with a song called “Anticipation.” Anticipation that, to honor Dorothy Cotton’s legacy, the assembled would move forward. Forward together, not one step back.All photos courtesy of Cornell University Photography. Your Arts & Culture news is made possible with support from: Tagged: civil rights, cornell university, dorothy cotton, martha pollack, Martin Luther King Jr., memorial, Orinthia Montague, Shirley Collado Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at [email protected] or 607-391-0328. More by Devon Magliozzi Devon Magliozzi last_img read more