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If Your Back's Not Bent

The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement

Foreword by Andrew Young / Introduction by Vincent Harding

“Nobody can ride your back if your back’s not bent,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said at the end of a Citizenship Education Program (CEP), an adult grassroots training program directed by Dorothy Cotton. This program, called the best-kept secret of the twentieth century’s civil rights movement, was critical in preparing legions of disenfranchised people across the South to work with existing systems of local government to gain access to services and resources they were entitled to 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 Dr. 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.

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, the only woman in Dr. King’s inner circle of leadership, for the first time offers her account of the movement, correcting the historical impression that “we only marched and sang.” She 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.”

Photography by Clay Carson

Dorothy Cotton is lifelong civil rights activist who was the highest ranking woman in the Southern Leadership Conference (SCLC). She is a speaker, singer, peacemaker, and visionary dedicated to social justice.  She lives in Ithaca, New York.

“A distinct reminder that women have been endlessly omitted from the written histories of civil rights movements.”

– Camille O. Cosby

“Dorothy Cotton has given us the story of the heart and lungs of the Freedom Struggle.”

– Otis Moss, Jr.

“Dorothy Cotton is an inspiration to so many. We should all pay close attention to her story.”

– Ben Jealous, former NAACP President and CEO

“A much-needed female perspective on life on the front lines with Martin Luther King, Jr.”

– Tananarive Due, American Book Award winner, co-author of Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights

“Dorothy Cotton was as crucial to the Movement as was King, Abernathy and Shuttlesworth in her dogged preparation of the ‘troops.’”

– Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, Pastor Emeritus of Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church of Christ

“Cotton’s Citizenship Education Program taught ordinary people, most importantly, that they could change both themselves and America.”

– Betty DeRamus, author of Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad and Freedom by Any Means

“Superb book . . . . Read it, be inspired, and act.”

– Joan Steinau Lester, award-winning author of Black, White, Other