Dorothy Cotton teaches in a Citizenship Education Program class. Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries

ITHACA, N.Y. — Dorothy Cotton, a community member and pioneer of civil rights, died at Kendal at Ithaca this weekend. She was 88.

Cotton was considered one of the most important unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.

She worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and led the Citizen Education Program, meant to help black citizens register to vote. The program helped people understand their civil rights, organize in their communities, envision the change they desired and helped “transform often poorly educated and disenfranchised people from ‘victims’ to full ‘citizens,’” her biography on the Dorothy Cotton Institute states.

Cotton’s lifework was based on the “philosophy and practices of nonviolence, reconciliation and restoration, and grassroots leadership development,” according to the DCI website.

She was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina, in 1930 at the beginning of the Great Depression.

Cotton was known for her strong will, her sense of humor and love of music. In 2010, Dr. Baruch Whitehead founded the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, naming it in her honor. Whitehead directs the group and is associate professor of music education at Ithaca College.

Dr. Baruch Whitehead, director of the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, stands with Dorothy Cotton. (Provided Photo)

Whitehead said he has known Cotton for over 10 years and said from the first time they met they always had a connection through music and social work. The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers share the music of the “Negro Spirituals.”

Music is a large part of Cotton’s legacy, Whitehead said, describing how Cotton had an ability to bring people together through music. He said she always got the crowd to sing no matter where she worked, Whitehead said. Every time he met with her, she would share song and stories about Dr. King.

“Certainly her civil rights activity will certainly be what people will remember her by,” Whitehead said. “But anyone who knew her intimately will know that she used music to bring people together.”

From 1982 to 1991, Cotton was the director of student activities at Cornell University.

Cotton’s civil rights leadership continues on. The Dorothy Cotton Institute, conceived by Cotton and a group of colleagues in 2007, has adapted the original design of the CEP to be relevant for contemporary activists.

Arrangements will be announced, her obituary states.

This story will be updated.

Featured image: Dorothy Cotton teaches in a Citizen Education Program class. Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.