It’s known as the “Mountaintop” speech — the speech the Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at the Mason Temple in Memphis on April 3, 1968. It’s a work of oratorical art, with the civil rights leader explaining that, were he given the chance, he would choose to live through his own troubled times again, rather than during any other historical epoch.
King was assassinated the following day. In the new documentary “Move When the Spirit Says Move: The Legacy of Dorothy Foreman Cotton,” which screens Wednesday at the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival, one scholar strongly suggests that the famous speech bore the unmistakable stamp of one of King’s closest advisers: the subject of the film, the late Dorothy Foreman Cotton.
In fact, says co-director Ry Ferro, the more she immersed herself in Cotton’s lifelong dedication to teaching citizenship, she came to believe that the activist played a much larger role in the civil rights movement than has been previously acknowledged.
“I started to really understand, I think, that Dorothy is in a lot of King’s language and his voice,” said Ferro on a joint Zoom call with her co-director, Deborah C. Hoard. “I think she was there advising him, rewriting things, crafting his message.”
Hoard is president of a film production company based in Ithaca, N.Y., where in 2007 Cotton established the Dorothy Cotton Institute, a human rights initiative affiliated with Cornell University. She recorded a long interview with Cotton in 2012 as she was trying to raise funding to accompany a DCI delegation to the West Bank.
That didn’t happen, but the deep impression left by Hoard’s comprehensive interview with Cotton, who died the day after her 88th birthday in 2018, stuck with her.
“People ask why I wanted to work on this film,” she said. “It’s because I met Dorothy.”
When the two filmmakers premiered their new documentary at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles in February, they were delighted to learn that James Lawson, one of the leading theorists of nonviolent protest during the civil rights era, was in attendance.
Even better, the 94-year-old Lawson pronounced the film “the missing piece” of the story of the civil rights movement.
“It was fun for us to meet him and hear him say that,” said Hoard.
Now in its 21st year, the MVAAFF opens on Friday with the feature film “Forgetting Christmas” and runs through Saturday, Aug. 12. Highlights include “Black Barbie: A Documentary,” a special screening of an episode of “Swagger,” Kevin Durant’s Apple TV+ series about youth basketball, and “Sound of the Police,” a feature-length examination of the fraught relationship between law enforcement and Black Americans.
Ferro, a 43-year-old native of Providence, will be on hand for the talk-back event following the screening of “Move When the Spirit Says Move.” Like a lot of folks in Ithaca, she first became aware of Cotton’s name because of the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, who keep alive the activist’s legacy of incorporating “freedom songs” into her activism.
Though Cotton’s work with King was exceptional, Ferro said, she was one of many women whose imprint on the civil rights movement has gone under-acknowledged.
“There were so many other women who made significant impacts, on the civil rights movement and democracy itself,” Ferro said. “If it were just this one woman who did not get the credit, then we might think, ‘Hmmm, I wonder why?’ But it seems pretty obvious.”
Raised by a stern widower in a segregated town in North Carolina, Cotton earned a master’s degree in speech therapy from Boston University in 1960, a few years after King met his future wife, Coretta Scott, while studying there.
Already acquainted with the pastor Wyatt Tee Walker from her time at Virginia State University, Cotton joined him when he moved to Atlanta to help King establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King soon asked her to work with the staff at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where she teamed with Septima Clark, the “Queen Mother” of the movement, at the center’s social justice leadership training school.
Up until King’s death, Cotton was often the only woman in the room as the SCLC leadership discussed tactics and policy. Often, as she and others make clear in archival footage in the film, she’d be expected to do the “woman’s work” — secretarial duties, for instance. Once, when King asked her to fetch him a cup of coffee, she turned to her friend Andrew Young and told him to “get his boss a cup of coffee.”
Through the years, some have speculated that Cotton’s relationship with King went beyond their professional association. The film is diplomatic on that topic. At one point, Cotton herself says they were “family.”
Though the film was made in conjunction with the Dorothy Cotton Institute, “there was no censoring of any of our conversations or our work,” Hoard says. “We let Dorothy speak for herself.”
The space that Cotton earned at the table was all her own doing, as the film makes abundantly clear. As a child, she had an influential schoolteacher who presented her as a model for her fellow students. “There’s your ready girl!” the teacher declared.
Though it’s evidently intended to augment the historical record, “Move When the Spirit Says Move” has plenty to say to about our own times, when educators are being told what to teach and voting rights are once again being upended.
“Well, you know, documentary filmmakers want to change the world,” Hoard said with a laugh. “We have an agenda. The challenge is making it meaningful, artful, and emotional.
“Those were my goals, and you can tell from Ry’s edit, they were hers, too.”
MARTHA’S VINEYARD AFRICAN-AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL
At the MV Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. Aug. 4-12. “Move When the Spirit Says Move: The Legacy of Dorothy Foreman Cotton” screens at 1 p.m. Wednesday. More information: www.mvaaff.com
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @sullivanjames.