As I sat at the table this morning reading the paper I saw the headline, “Dorothy Cotton, civil rights leader and confidante to Martin Luther King Jr., dies at 88”
Immediately I was transported back in time.
For many years I had heard of the Samuel Proctor Institute sponsored every summer by the Children’s Defense Fund, but as a youth minister it always conflicted with my schedule. When I moved to Charleston I was looking for a continuing education experience and sign up.
It was more than I ever could have expected. I found myself sitting with veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, hearing their stories. In the bookstore one afternoon I stood beside Dr. Otis Moss Jr who was flipping through a book, looking at the pictures.
I commented to him, “I look at that book like history, but you look at it like a family album.” “Yes,” he said, “Sometime with a smile on my face and at other times with a tear on my cheek.”
It was that kind of week!
Dr. Dorothy Cotton was leading the music that week.
One day I found myself sitting next to her at lunch. True confession—I had never heard of Dorothy Cotton. I did not know who she was, but had gathered that she had been involved in “The Movement” as the veterans called it.
“Dr. Cotton,” I asked between bites of my salad, “What did you do during the Civil Rights Movement?”
Her answer is burned into my memory.
“Well, Martin, sent Andy and me to Birmingham.”
(Internal scream! You are talking about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Andrew Young, UN Ambassador, Mayor of Atlanta! I was so proud that I kept all that inside and didn’t choke on the lettuce!)
“Well, Martin, sent Andy and me to Birmingham. Andy’s job was to organize the students. My job was to teach them the songs.”
My job was to teach them the songs—the songs:
“My job was to teach them the songs.”
Those songs changed the world! The story is told that in the dark days of the movement the National Council of Churches sent someone down to see what was going on and how they might respond. He came back and gave his report.
“It looks bad. The police are against them. The state is against the. Public opinion is against them. It looks bad!”
“So you think they are going to lose?”
“No, I think they are going to win!”
“What? You just said that he police are against them, the state is against the, and that public opinion is against them!”
“Yes, but they have a song!”
It was the songs that nourished their souls when their bodies were beaten. It was the songs that kept the spark of freedom alive when they were in jail. It was the song that lit the way of hope in the dark dark days.
We need a song today!
In a time where we see children torn away from their parents; when deaths from opioids are the modern day plague; when bullying, misogyny, discrimination seem to be the way to success, we need a song.
We need a song to remind us what is good, of who we are, of who we might be.
We need a song that we all can sing.
But we also need someone to teach us.
Dorothy Cotton did that.
Who will teach us the songs now?