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Civil Rights icon Dr. Dorothy Cotton highlights Founder's Day

Published date: February 24, 2014

Dr. Dorothy CottonVirginia State alumna and civil rights icon Dr. Dorothy Cotton will serve as the keynote speaker for VSU’s 132nd Founder’s Day convocation. The University will celebrate Founder’s Day on Thursday, March 27 at 4 p.m. in Anderson-Turner Auditorium.

Recognized as “the highest ranking woman in the SCLC during most of the 60s”, Dr. Cotton served as Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Citizenship Education Program at the peak of the civil rights movement, a position that situated her in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inner circle of executive staff.  In recognition of a lifetime dedicated to service and fostering educational opportunities for all, the National Civil Rights Museum honored Dr. Cotton with its 2010 Freedom Award.

Education opened many doors for Dr. Cotton. She began her college career at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC, working to pay tuition as a housekeeper for the school’s President Robert Prentiss Daniel. When Dr. Daniel assumed the Presidency of Virginia State, Cotton followed. After graduation, she continued to work in the school’s library. During this time, she met the man who would change the course of her life: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Cotton had become involved in the Civil Rights movement in Petersburg.  She worked with Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker to organize the demonstrations that ultimately led to the integration of Petersburg’s library, schools and businesses. Upon a visit to the city, Dr. King was so impressed that he asked Dr. Cotton to become Education Director for the SCLC.

Her work included teaching, but also challenging, the oppressed to stand up for their rights. She led workshops focusing on education and non-violent means of protest.  In April 1968, Dr. Cotton accompanied Dr. King to Memphis. Just hours before his assassination, Dr. King had urged her to leave to set up workshops, saying he would soon follow.

Dr. Cotton did not allow Dr. King’s death to deter her. On the contrary, she re-doubled her efforts to ensure all Americans received equal opportunities. She worked for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, before being appointed by President Jimmy Carter as the Southeastern Regional Director of ACTION, the Federal Government’s agency for volunteerism.

Alfred W. Harris founded present-day Virginia State University in 1882.  It was then known as Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, the nation’s first, fully state-assisted, college for blacks.  Today, VSU has grown into a global, comprehensive, four-year institution of nearly 6,000 students. Students can earn degrees in 52 undergraduate and graduate programs.

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