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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

An unsung hero of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inner circle reveals the true story behind the Citizenship Education Program—a little-known training program for disenfranchised citizens—reflecting on its huge importance to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and explaining its indisputable relevance to our nation today.

“Nobody can ride your back if your back’s not bent,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously proclaimed at the end of a Citizenship Education Program (CEP), an adult grassroots training program born of the work of the Tennessee Highlander Folk School, expanded by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and directed by activist Dorothy Cotton. This program, called the best-kept secret of the twentieth-century’s civil rights movement, was critical in preparing legions of disenfranchised citizens across the South to work with existing systems of local government to gain access to resources they were entitled to and to demonstrate peaceably against injustice, even in the face of violence and hatred.

For the first time, Cotton, the only woman in King’s inner circle, offers her account of this important project, which the media, focused at the time on marches and demonstrations, largely ignored. Cotton reveals the significant accomplishments and the drama of the CEP training and describes how the program transformed its participants, inspiring them, in turn, to transform their communities, and ultimately the country as a whole, into a place of greater freedom and justice for all. A timely account of fighting inequality, If Your Back’s Not Bent shows how CEP was key to the civil rights movement’s success and how the lessons of the program can serve our troubled democracy now.

Photography by Clay Carson

Dorothy Cotton (1930-2018) was a lifelong civil rights activist who was the highest-ranking woman in the Southern Leadership Conference (SCLC), and was a speaker, singer, peacemaker, and visionary dedicated to social justice. 

“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