Dorothy Cotton gives MLK keynote address

“Are we really living?” This was the question posed by human rights activist Dorothy Cotton during her lecture, “The Life and Legacy of Dr. King,” last Wednesday night. Part of King’s inner circle, Cotton served as the director of the Citizen Education Program for 12 years at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Her lecture last Wednesday, rescheduled from Jan. 22, was the keynote address for the College’s annual commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr., held at the MainStage of the ’62 Center.

After her introduction by Coordinator of Community Engagement Stewart Burns, Cotton asked everyone sitting in the back of the theater to move towards the front.

She began her lecture by recalling a conversation she once had with a young girl after giving a similar talk on her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. When Cotton was done speaking the astonished child approached her to say, “And you’re all still living?!”

“Good question,” remarked Cotton and invited the audience to contemplate the meaning of being truly alive. She spoke about her own history, telling the audience how she had realized she was indeed living in the midst of the struggle for human rights.

Cotton began working for the cause of civil rights in 1960 when King visited Petersburg, Va., where she was helping Wyatt T. Walker organize protests against a rule that banned black people from using the public library.

Moving into the present, Cotton changed her focus to the new president of the United States. According to Cotton, Barack Obama is the leader who embodies all the qualities the United States currently needs to continue its journey. She compared the president to the Biblical queen Esther, who was able to save her people with her eloquence.

Cotton said she does not want to dwell on the scars from the past but prefers to hope for the future. However, she reminded the audience that history is important, and it should be taught well and in a way that helps young people create dreams for their own lives. She lamented the fact that she has had to explain to people that the fight for civil rights has nothing to do with the Civil War and that Dr. King did not work to abolish slavery.

Cotton admitted that sometimes she asks herself, “When will the pain go away?” She acknowledged that she still sometimes feels the anguish of being unjustly attacked, but she lives with a great sense of gratitude, convinced that the old saying “our scars will turn into stars” is true.

She gave the example of John Louis, who was severely beaten by white extremists in the ’60s and subsequently became a Georgia senator. She emphasized the importance of the non-violent protest as opposed to writing and petitioning, which waste precious time in her opinion. “We had to make everyone see us in a way a letter never could have helped,” she said.

Cotton also revealed that the Civil Rights Movement had yet another side. “It was a singing movement, sometimes we could do nothing but sing our way out of the sorrow,” she said as she burst into a song, encouraging the surprised audience to join in. She then quoted the singer Seal, who told her that “Great leaders can speak to the mainstream but music goes to the bloodstream.”
The talk then turned to Cotton’s work for the SCLC. She defined the main task of the institution as teaching the true meaning of citizenship.

“The Civil Rights Movement did not evolve from the ivy-covered halls of academia,” said Cotton. The SCLC was able to familiarze victims of segregation with the Constitution and help them realize that there was, in fact, a legal basis for their demands.

Cotton recalled seeing people gradually realize that they had more power than they thought. “We could make the road by walking it,” she said. “Whatever skills we lacked, we learned. We learned how to de-mystify government.”

Cotton is confident that taking steps to bring a positive change will always draw supporters. She encouraged young people to research, learn foreign languages and embrace their unique perception of freedom. “Your dawn can be now,” she said.

In concluding her lecture, Cotton read a poem, entitled “Martin,” ending her lecture with the words “the dream is worth the climb” before she and the audience ended the night with another song, “We are Building a New World.”