Feb. 21, 2007

Fighting for civil rights 'made us stronger,' says King assistant Dorothy Cotton in campus speech

Ithacan Dorothy Cotton, who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. for 12 years, continues to spread the message that fighting for King's "dream" made his followers stronger.

Delivering the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture, Feb. 20, to a large audience in Cornell's Sage Chapel, she said, "Many people associate the civil rights movement with great suffering and sadness. However from another perspective, that earth-changing movement gave millions a new reason to live." Her lecture focused on what it means to "truly live" and related that theme to the legacy of King.

"Fighting for that cause brought a new meaning to our lives. Working together as a community with a sense of purpose against the brutal racist culture turned those scars into stars," said the noted civil rights activist. She added, "If it didn't kill us, it made us stronger."

Cotton was the education director for King for 12 years, working directly under him and accompanying him to Oslo, Norway, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964; she also served as director of student activities at Cornell for nine years.

The talk also commemorated the times that both King and his father preached in Sage Chapel -- King in November 1960 and King Sr. in February 1979. Cotton and Kenneth Clarke Sr., director of Cornell United Religious Work, unveiled a plaque to honor the occasion.

An educator herself, with a master's degree in special education from Boston University, Cotton questioned whether today's education system actually enables students to "dream." Describing the Citizenship Education Program, which she directed under the close supervision of King for many years, she said, "These schools gave the black folk new tools to fight the oppression. Before these came into existence, people could not do anything to change the state of their affairs. But now, words like 'amendment,' 'citizenship,' 'electoral franchise,' etc., came alive and transformed their outlook."

Cotton reminded the audience, which included many Ithaca residents brought to the lecture by free rides on TCAT buses from downtown, of the lessons taught by the civil rights movement.

"We learned that we could only make the road by walking it. We can use anger constructively to empower ourselves," she said. "Most importantly, one of the greatest lessons it taught us was to never forget that government is by the people only if we make it so."

Cotton recalled King's words of empowerment: "The time is always right to do what is right." Speaking of the future, she said: "People must embrace a new way of seeing the world. Notice the violence that has crept even in our language: 'anti-war' movement instead of a peace movement, 'war' against terror, etc. In MLK's words, we have inherited a world house and we must think proactively rather than reactively on how to coexist in comfort."

The program, which began with an introduction by Susan Murphy, vice president for student and academic services, followed by blessings from the monks of the Namgyal Monastery and a song from the musical group Measureless, concluded with performances by Chai Notes and the Chosen Generation Gospel Choir.

Graduate student Kanika Arora is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.