ITHACA, N.Y.—Dorothy Cotton, a civil rights leader who played an instrumental role in educating thousands and propelling the philosophies of non-violence and civic engagement forward in America, has remained one of the great unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. 

But, in the recently released film, “Move When the Spirit Says Move: The Legacy of Dorothy Foreman Cotton,” an ode worthy of telling Cotton’s story has been crafted in sound and vision with the aim of sharing her life far and wide. 

Through interviews, archival footage, photographs, and illustrations, the film illuminates the life of accomplishment in the face of adversity that formed Cotton’s worldview and resolve. The film asserts that the tenets she lived by are no less relevant today than they were during her work as a civil rights leader.

The documentary is a collaboration between the Ithaca-based film company, Photosynthesis Productions, and the Dorothy Cotton Institute. Ry Ferro, editor and co-director of the film, said, “What the movie wants to communicate is that the [civil rights] movement was built of hundreds of thousands of people who discovered that they had power, that they could come together and change their circumstances. And that didn’t just happen overnight. It was a long, hard struggle, and it still continues.”

Laura Branca, Project Director of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, and executive producer of the film, pointed to laws being passed in states across the U.S. that restrict voting access, and limit how lessons on the civil rights movement, the civil war, and slavery can be taught in schools. 

“This is American history that is being suppressed, and books are being burned, and this is happening in our country,” said Branca.

Dorothy Cotton at the age of 16. Credit: Provided

Cotton would spend 36 years of her life living in Ithaca before passing away at the age of 88 in 2018, but she was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina during the Jim Crow-era. In the segregated Black community she was raised in, her early life was characterized by poverty, and a fear of the violence that was wrought by the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, police, and even white neighbors — all condoned by the local and state governments.

Cotton describes in her own words forming an early consciousness of the “wrongness of the system” of laws and social barriers that subjugated and dehumanized Black Americans. The film details a salient brilliance, affability, as well as a sense of leadership that became evident in Cotton from an early age. She flourished in school and would attend Shaw University, Virginia State University and Boston University.

Even as a child she naturally stepped into the role of  being a teacher to her peers — a quality of character that would augur her role as Educational Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Black leaders in 1957 to direct and spur the growing civil rights activity in America.

Before the Citizenship Education Program and her work with King, Cotton’s activism included organizing picketing campaigns, marches, and sit-ins. As the director of the program, Cotton helped to recruit African Americans from across the Southern U.S. that had “PhD minds” but had been deprived of educational opportunity, and may have even been functionally illiterate. 

The Citizenship Education Program would provide literacy lessons, teach its attendees how to register to vote, what their rights were under the constitution, and promote the philosophies of civic engagement and non-violence that would underpin the civil rights movement.

“It flew under the radar as a literacy program, but it was really much more than a literacy program,” said Branca.

The effect of the program would be profound, populating towns and cities across the U.S. with engaged activists united through the knowledge of their common oppression, and a strategy to fight it. 

“It’s an extraordinary kind of transformation that they were able to accomplish with people in such a short amount of time and I think people were just hungry for it,” said Branca. “And then they went back into these situations that were super dangerous, where violence was a daily occurrence and a daily threat, and were able to find the courage to act on their own behalf.”

The civil rights movement, utilizing civil disobedience, non-violence, and love and tolerance for one’s opponents, focused on securing the rights of African Americans to vote and for institutions to be desegregated. The federal protections that the movement would see put in place have helped to secure the civil rights of all Americans.

Branca had this to say on the philosophies that Cotton extolled: “I love the quote from Dorothy which is that, ‘What we need to understand is that the ends are pre-existent in the means.’ […] The way that we go after what it is we think we want to achieve is just as important as the achievement at the end.”

The legacy of Cotton, who was a close advisor to King, has remained out of the larger spotlight of history because, for one, she lived in a time when women were not looked to for leadership, and men assumed those roles. On King’s executive staff, she was the only woman.

Dorothy Cotton (bottom right) sits with her colleagues at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Credit: Provided

But her reputation may have been looked over, in part, because Cotton’s radical work in the Citizenship Education Program was also initially kept secret during the civil rights movement. Moreover, descriptions offered by friends and confidants of hers in the film describe Cotton as someone who knew she was capable, left an indelible impression on the people who met her, but was ultimately not interested in self-promotion.

Deborah Hoard, a producer and co-director of the film, said “Dorothy herself points out in the film that it was a journey for all of us — our entire society — for women to begin to be able to take a bigger leadership role in our society, and so that’s a long journey. And we’re still on it.”

The goal for the film now, said Hoard, is to attract a distributor, which means hitting the festival circuit, and organizing screenings across the country. Ithaca Murals is also fundraising to have a mural painted of Dorothy Cotton on the face of Photosynthesis Production’s studio. Locally, “Move When the Spirit Says Move” is scheduled to run until April 8 at Cinemapolis, and there is a talk-back scheduled with the musicians behind the film’s soundtrack for the 7pm showing on April 3. 

Theaters and film festivals aside, though, Hoard said that the hope is for “Move When the Spirit Says Move” to be shown in classrooms, at voter registration events, or at community organizations. She said, “That’s where we […] can be in a situation to transform people’s thinking, and therefore their actions about what their power is to change and control their lives.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn