The experience of African Americans over the centuries makes for a tragic retelling: the history begins with slavery and the attempts to escape it, through the various Fugitive Slave Acts, a Civil War and then Reconstruction and segregation. Despite the prevalence of policies meant to hold them back — and regardless of the inferior status forced on black people — some African Americans were able to rise to prominence in their fields of endeavor. But through strict segregation in the South and de facto discrimination in the North the United States relegated some 15% of its citizens to second-class status and resistance to that condition became an ongoing conflict within American society.
The Underground Railroad, the manumission societies and the Abolitionist movement were all precursors of such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would find an echo in President Truman’s Executive Order 9981, integrating the U.S. armed forces. The black population was getting organized and calling on America’s conscience.
At the midpoint of the 20th century — a time when a sense of acceleration could be felt in many scientific, communication and social trends — the drive for racial equality moved to the forefront of the public agenda. The times also brought forth leaders whose actions and personal qualities were as important as the policies they sought to advance. Among those whose work had far-reaching influence was Dorothy F. Cotton, whose autobiography can also serve as a chronicle of the civil rights era. She tells her story in a new book entitled, “If Your Back’s Not Bent: the Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement.” Dorothy Foreman was born in Goldsboro, NC and raised by her father after his wife died when Dorothy was three years old. They lived in a “shotgun house” on an unpaved street in the otherwise attractive (and properly-paved) city. Her father was a Navy veteran and tobacco worker who was often overwhelmed by his family duties. She writes, “I can’t recall him being anything other than deeply burdened.” The book is dedicated to his memory.
Dorothy was a good student in the segregated schools of Goldsboro and went on to study at Shaw University in Raleigh, where she also worked as a housekeeper for the university president, Dr. Robert Daniel, and his wife. Dorothy sometimes found the work of “live-in help” demeaning, but she accompanied the Daniels to Virginia State College in Petersburg when he became president there in 1952. She later earned a master’s degree in special education at Boston University and returned to work as a school speech therapist in Petersburg. It was at her church in Petersburg that she first met a visiting preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She would become the Director of Education of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the guiding force behind the SCLC’s Citizenship Education Program (CEP) that began in 1961. Though not as dramatic as the marches, sit-ins and other non-violent action, the deliberately low-key CEP became a motive force in the drive for equality, and an experience that bolstered the self-esteem of those who experienced the vision of first-class citizenship.
A strong focus would be on basic things like how to run a meeting, how to successfully negotiate, the importance and nature of politics, how governing decisions are made, hiow laws are made, and how to assess whether a law was just and understand the basic documents on which the country was founded. These were regular themes in CEP workshops. Student development of self-awareness, self-empowerment, and techniques in breaking down the walls of segregation and exclusion were always in the mix. These adult civic learners brought their specific problems to the classroom…
The reality of African-Americans learning that they deserved equal protection of the laws was apparently threatening enough to the existing white power structure that the first CEP classes, at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, were “invaded more than once by law officers breaking in on meetings for no real reason.” The Citizenship Education Program went on to enlighten people who would become leaders in non-violent civic action. Dorothy Cotton writes as an insider during the drive for civil rights, but her interests go further. In 1982 she moved to Ithaca to take a job as Director of Student Activities at Cornell University and also went on to found the Dorothy Cotton Institute, a project of the Center for Transformative Action, seeking to advance human rights and “to explore, share and promote practices that transform individuals and communities, opening new pathways to peace, justice and healing.” She is also the inspiration for the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, an Ithaca-based vocal group that performs and preserves Negro Spirituals.
The title of Dorothy Cotton’s autobiography is taken from a saying of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “nobody can ride your back if your back’s not bent.” The book concludes with an open letter to her late friend, mentor and hero which sums up the work they had done, the goals they accomplished and those that remain to be fulfilled. She mentions that his birthday is now a national holiday and remarks, “Our nation has honored many who brought military skills to the scene. To have someone like you, who brought another way to bring peace and justice to the country and the world, was a much-needed contribution.”