Recently-released FBI files on Martin Luther King Jr. put his extramarital affairs back into the limelight. But a woman named Dorothy Cotton, who many only know as King’s “other wife,” deserves much more than the label of mistress, according to scholar Jason Miller, professor of English at North Carolina State University. She is a native of Goldsboro, North Carolina whose commitment to grassroots organizing led her from serving as a housekeeper to becoming the only female director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She was charged with running the SCLC's education initiative, the Citizenship Education Program. Two years before her death in 2018, Cotton sat down for an extended interview with Miller.
How did Dorothy Cotton describe her relationship with Dr. King?
Dorothy recalled the intimate moments with Dr. King for the last five years of Dr. King's life from approximately 1963 to 1968. We think of Dr. King needing strategic support, but we forget the emotional needs a person like this would have. Who do I talk to at the end of the day? Where can I get away from everybody needing something from me? That one person consistently was Dorothy Cotton. He could just escape and talk poetry, talk ideas, not even talk about anything having to do with [the] civil rights movement.
She went to Shaw University, and we just can't underestimate the poverty and what it took for her [to attend there]. She didn't even have enough money to go to a prom to pay for a dress. She showed up at the steps of Shaw University with literally all her belongings in a cardboard box, not even enough money to buy a suitcase. She would exchange dresses with other women on the floor, so it seemed like they had more possessions than they did. She worked three jobs just to put herself through college. She transfers then to Virginia State College and graduates there with an English degree prepared to teach students.
What was Cotton's involvement in the civil rights movement?
We know the story of Birmingham, right? And we imagine and remember a person stepping up to the podium and speaking. Or of those May 7, 1963 photographs of the fire hoses and police dogs set on children. Well, that moment could only have happened because Dorothy Cotton was sitting in Kelly Ingram Park for weeks working with first eight to 10 children, then 20 to 50. And eventually hundreds who said: We want to be involved. Those children in those photographs were only there because Dorothy was teaching them.
Cotton directed the Citizenship Education Program. What was the CEP's mission?
Every month, 40 to 50 people would come get training and then go back to their communities and train others around them, not only to pass these [literacy] tests, but to realize their own self-worth to vote and have a sense of ownership in their country and their rights. And the education was so formative for these people. Six to eight thousand people came through, but then they all worked with others. And one of these people became a star pupil: Fannie Lou Hamer, who went down to Mississippi and made incredible changes.
How did Cotton remember the day of Dr. King's assassination?
For five years, nobody had been closer to Dr. King than Dorothy. And on the final night of his life, April 3, 1968, Dorothy is expecting him to come back from that famous mountaintop speech in Memphis. She had Dr. King’s favorite meal ready for him. At about 11:00 PM, she's waiting for his return, expecting him to come in her room that was right next door at the Lorraine Motel. And an hour goes by, and he's not there. Another hour goes by. It's a rainy night. And finally, after waiting, she peeks in on his door at about 3 a.m., and Dr. King isn't there. Obviously, bells went off in her head about where he probably was …
So the next morning, they had what is probably the only true fight of their life. Dorothy packs her bags and says: I'm leaving early, and she gets on a 1 p.m. flight back to Atlanta.
When she gets back, she's exhausted. She hasn't slept. This person she's loved has just had a fight with her. She falls asleep. And within hours, a next-door neighbor wakes her up and says Dr. King has been shot.
Jason Miller is a professor of English at North Carolina State University. He is the author of Origins of the Dream: Hughes’s Poetry and King’s Rhetoric and an article on Dorothy Cotton published in “The Conversation”