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Lynn Cothren: In the shadow of a civil rights icon

By |2013-04-05T09:00:00-04:00April 5th, 2013|Uncategorized|

When Lynn Cothren started working at the King Center 22 years ago, it was just a job. He had just relocated to Atlanta from his home in Fayetteville, Tenn. and to support himself while he studied at the Atlanta Art Institute it was either take a part time job at the Center or use his transfer letter to get a guaranteed job at Sears.
Cothren worked with the Center’s library and archives for three months before being transferred to the office of the executive vice president of government and international affairs. Three months later he was tapped by the Center’s founder, Mrs. Coretta Scott King herself, to work on the files in her office.
But still, it was just a job, and Cothren had plenty of time to volunteer for other causes. The AIDS crisis in full bloom, one of the first efforts he became involved in was the buddy program of AID Atlanta.
“I was a buddy captain and I had five or six buddies that I helped make the transition,” Cothren recalled. “I was with them through their transition. Each time it took a toll on me personally, and it also gave me a tremendous amount of growth personally and I wanted to continue to do the work but as many who worked at this time in HIV and AIDS, you get tired. And I wanted to do something that wasn’t so draining and so I started working more in the gay and lesbian community on issues. I’ve never seen myself as just as a gay activist. I try to see myself as a human rights activist that specializes, maybe, in queer issues. But I work on all the progressive issues because I believe very strongly that everything is interconnected. Where you see racism and sexism, you’ll see homophobia.”
Balancing his commitment to all three of those causes hasn’t always been easy, as Cothren found out when he led the national protest against the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain’s anti-gay hiring policy.
“I remember doing Cracker Barrel and I talked about the mammy dolls and the confederate flags in their stores and there were some people – and people I respected actually – who said that I was taking the queer out of the issue because I was showing where they were racist and sexist, because they didn’t have women in upper management or on the board or anything,” said Cothren. “And the real issue was the fact that gay people were being fired and I needed to just focus on that.”
But Cothren has a commitment to fighting all the isms, and as it grew so, too, did his responsibilities at the King Center. After nearly 10 years at the center, Cothren was promoted to manager of community affairs and special assistant to King, in essence her chief of staff.
“I grew into this job,” Cothren said. “I started when I was 19. I didn’t anticipate being here this long. It has been a great blessing. It wasn’t something that I sought. I truly believe that God puts us where he wants us to be. We don’t always do what we’re supposed to do but God puts us where we’re supposed to be if we’re willing.”
God may have had a plan for Cothren, but it took some at the center a while to realize the vision. They weren’t thrilled with King’s choice of a gay white male to head her office. He would, after all, be accompanying her on most public appearances – she makes nearly 200 a year – and therefore be very visible.
“Several of her board members and other people were like, ‘You don’t need that gay white boy traveling around with you,'” Cothren recalled. “Mrs. King was very clear. She said, ‘I know what I need.’ She was very clear about it. ‘He does his job and that’s what I’m about, not about the fact that he’s white or gay.'”
As the two began crisscrossing the globe together, Cothren had the opportunity to view the very human side of the civil rights icon.
“Mrs. King is hilarious,” he said. “Mrs. King is funny. Dr. King said she had a dry sense of humor, from what I understand. But she says some of the funniest things. She has a great laughter and she’s fun.
“I still am in awe of her because she’s such a great example and teacher of humility and giving,” Cothren continued. “She’s so generous, she’s just a generous person and it’s not in the sense of materialism but her spirit. She’s always thinking of other people. She’s a wonderful card giver. She’s constantly sending birthday cards. And it’s very personal to her. She spends a lot of energy on staying connected. She’s always giving.”
Always giving, indeed. King has given over 50 years of her life to the cause of social justice. She worked in partnership with her husband, and since his death in 1968 has been the leading proponent of his nonviolent philosophies. And at 77, she shows no sign of slowing down.
“She’s an activist,” Cothren said. “She was an activist before she met Dr. King. I think people don’t really know Mrs. King. They want to put her, because it’s part of our sexist society, she’s this woman who was pretty who married a very intelligent, smart man. But Dr. King says it best about her, there’s a quote in his autobiography É he talks about Cory – that’s what he called her – and how he’d like to say as a man it was all him, but he didn’t have a wife with the fortitude É it’s beautiful. He gives her all the credit.”
A great deal of credit can be given to Cothren, too. Working in King’s office has afforded him the chance to be a bridge builder between the black and gay communities. In 2003, Cothren helped organize the 40th anniversary march on Washington and ensured that no less than three openly-gay speakers found their way to the podium. One cannot help but wonder just how much of an effect Cothren has had on his boss, who speaks out strongly in favor of gay rights.
“I’ll have to quote Dr. King here,” Cothren said. “I’d like to say as a man that it was all me, that I brought her, but in a lot of ways she’s brought me. And I think we bring each other. I think having someone that’s openly gay on your staff É that we talk openly about issues and things has helped. She has learned a lot from me. But she knew gay people before me.”

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University before joining Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. Jason has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author having written the authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," which he released on his own JAM Books imprint.