As director of education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) — and the only woman within Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle — Dorothy Cotton’s primary responsibility was overseeing the Citizen Education Program (CEP), a grassroots leadership program that proved to be one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most important contributions. As one of of SCLC’s secret weapons, the program encouraged community “elders” and leaders and their youth proteges to stand steadfastly against the intimidation of the Ku Klux Klan and the brutality of law enforcement while adopting the disciplines of non-violent and model citizenship — a philosophy that was designed to prevail over the rage and bitterness that dominated Black communities during the struggle.
Cotton’s memoir, “If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement” (Atria Books, $25.00), takes its title from the famous quote by King that describes how a man cannot climb on your back and let you carry him unless your back is bent. It tells the behind-the-scene story of the critical preparation of legions of disenfranchised people across the South to work with existing systems of local government to gain access to services and resources to which they were entitled as citizens. They learned to demonstrate peacefully against injustice, even when they were met with violence and hatred. The CEP was born out of the work of the Tennessee Highlander Folk School and was fully developed and expanded by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by King until that fateful day in Memphis in April 1968. Cotton was checked into the Lorraine Motel at that time as well, but she’d left to do the work of the CEP before the assassin’s bullet was fired.
“Though unheralded, Dorothy Cotton was as crucial to the Movement as was King, (Rev. Ralph David) Abernathy and (Fred) Shuttlesworth in her dogged preparation of the ‘troops,’” explained the Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, Pastor Emeritus of Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church of Christ. “Dorothy Cotton was the engine that made it move to become a crucial part of the movement. It produced Fannie Lou Hamer and dozens like her and empowered them all across the deep South to produce an authentic grass roots revolution. This book tells the story that most chroniclers have missed because of their penchant for sensationalism and not actual historical facts that can be supported by intentional research.”
“If Your Back’s Not Bent” recounts the accomplishments and the drama of this training that was largely ignored by the media, which had focused its attention on marches and demonstrations. This book describes who participated and how they were transformed — men and women alike — from victims to active citizens, and how they transformed their communities and ultimately the country into a place of greater freedom and justice for all. Cotton shows how the CEP was key to the movement’s success, and how the lessons of the program can serve our democracy now. People, and therefore systems, can indeed change “if your back’s not bent.”