TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Tompkins County Legislature honored the life and legacy of revered local resident Dorothy Cotton on Tuesday with a proclamation.

Cotton was a longtime community member and considered one of the “most important unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement,” according to the Dorothy Cotton Institute. She died June 10 at Kendal at Ithaca at the age of 88.

The community is invited to celebrate Cotton’s life on Saturday at an event at Cornell University’s Bailey Hall. The event goes from 2 to 4:30 p.m. and requires tickets, which are free but going fast.

Read by Legislator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, the proclamation urges all county residents “to remember the many contributions Dr. Dorothy Foreman Cotton made to the civil rights movement and to the cause of social justice and equality here in Tompkins County, work that inspired hope, justice, and revived love for humanity in our hearts not just locally but across the nation and around the world.”

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

The proclamation details some of her many accomplishments. She became a prominent leader in the human and civil rights movement from the 1960s until the end of her life. She was the highest-ranking woman in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and directed the Citizenship Education Program.

Cotton taught literacy, citizenship and nonviolent protest tactics. She motivated others to become registered voters and to actively engage in politics, “all to ensure that Black people knew their history and how to become empowered economically,” the proclamation states.

She worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and accompanied him to Norway in 1964 to accept his Nobel Peace Prize.

Cotton moved to Ithaca to work at Cornell University as director of student activities, a role she served from 1982 to 1991. She continued her civil rights work and conducted workshops on leadership development and social change.

While in Tompkins County, she published her memoir, “If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement.” She also saw the establishment of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, which carries her legacy forward, and the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers.

Read and download the full proclamation below:

Proclamation Honoring the Life and Legacy of Dorothy Cotton by Kelsey O’Connor on Scribd

Featured image courtesy of Dorothy Cotton Institute.

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