“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.
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If Your Back’s Not Bent
SHARING THE PRIZE
Going to Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize
SITTING ON A transatlantic jet airplane with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. en route to Oslo, Norway, where he would receive the Nobel Prize for Peace, is an experience I can’t help but juxtapose with my years growing up poor on Greenleaf Street in Goldsboro, North Carolina. How could I have come so far from that small town, one of four motherless daughters of a tobacco factory worker who made nine and sometimes twelve dollars a week? When the news came on the radio that Martin had won, I fairly danced out the front door of our Auburn Avenue office excitedly exclaiming to some of our organizers standing there, “We won! We won! Dr. King is the winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize!” I shared the news with people we knew in the shops and eateries, all the little business establishments along “Sweet Auburn.” I’m not sure all of them even understood the enormity of this incredible honor. But the excitement escalated. I walked around in a state of high exhilaration as well as in sort of a daze. I’m aware still of having felt vindicated—even more justified in the rightness of our cause. There were smiles and there were tears of joy.
Dr. King’s entourage on the trip to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
My title at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was Director of Education. Though we all had rather impressive titles, most of us were fully involved in every direct action and voter education campaign. My main responsibility was directing the Citizenship Education Program (CEP). When I found out that I would be accompanying Dr. King, along with almost thirty other friends and team members, transformation truly occurred in my life. The once poor little girl from Goldsboro would be among those honored to be with Martin Luther King Jr. as he and all of us were feted in Norway’s capital by Norwegian royalty and other European dignitaries.
When the news came, Martin was in the hospital, where he was spending a few days for a thorough physical examination and much-needed rest from our hectic schedule. He was exhausted. Not surprisingly, he was now under even more stress as he bore the heaviest burden of our struggle to end segregation and the abuse that was inherent in such a system. It seemed the whole burgeoning civil rights movement structure was begging for his input, his guidance, and his opinion about what to do next and how to do it. Everyone wanted him in their town. They wanted to experience his powerful oratory, his guidance, and the confident spirit of hope he projected. And Martin wanted to respond even as the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 generated even more requests for his presence.
President Lyndon Johnson had signed the historic bill, and Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president, had opposed it. Our choice was very clear. And there was our own organizational commitment to urge people not only to vote but to continue to work to change the unjust segregation system.
Even though he was exhausted he wanted to respond. His ability to encourage and energize people was unmatched and he had accepted the calling to help “set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
At the same time there were the rumbling noises of a few who, I believe out of jealousy of his leadership, were beginning to criticize his nonviolent approach and strategies, and, most important, the spirit and philosophy we held on to to tear down the walls of injustice. Our organization was committed to the struggle to “redeem the soul of America.”
The exhaustion and this emerging negativity from others contributed to Dr. King’s need to take a break, to rest and recharge. What a propitious moment for the news of his winning the Nobel Peace Prize to come to him.
Dr. King was my best friend and I wanted to share with him this moment, of his getting the wondrous news of this prestigious prize. So I soon made my way to St. Joseph’s Hospital and had a long visit with him. Though we interacted regularly, sitting alone by his bed in that hospital room as he reflected is one of my most memorable times with him. He took my hand for a moment. No words. He knew why I was there. I pulled up a chair. He began to reflect on his days as a college student, in a slow, almost sad sort of way. One observation he shared I’ll never forget. He talked about seeing tall, handsome “football player type” guys around the campus. He said, “I would consciously determine that I could pursue the girlfriends of such guys until I won their girlfriends away.” He spoke as though he felt great guilt for this habit and others in the context of his feeling of unworthiness for such a prize. I wondered if he was questioning whether he deserved such an honor.
Though this was not to be the first time I experienced him in such a pensive mood, it was probably the time when he was most self-reflective—on his calling, his life and work. Coupled with these deep and mixed emotions was what seemed almost a sense of sadness. I was with Dr. King at an event in New York when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel introduced him for the speech he was about to give. Somewhere in that introduction Rabbi Heschel referred to him as a saint. Afterward, as we were preparing to go to dinner, I asked him, “What’s the matter? You seem so dejected, sad. The response to your speech was great. What are you feeling?” His response to me: “Rabbi Heschel called me a saint, and I know I’m no saint.”
I told him that I had shared this exchange with Andy Young and what Andy’s reply was. I’ve never forgotten it. Andy said, “The saints weren’t saints, either!” That pretty much captured my own sense of the matter. I had read of babies found buried under nunneries. The saints weren’t saints, either!
Dr. King was in a mood seldom seen by most of the staff, and even few of his friends were privy to this kind of sharing—the intimacy of it, and the unvarnished, total honesty. His decision to share the prize with other organizations whose goals were the same as ours at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference may have eased this guilt somewhat.
I listened to him quietly for a long time, feeling his need to reflect. If I could talk with him now I know I would remind him of something he knew at a very deep level, and that is that the God he loved uses many who are not thought of as perfect human beings. Indeed, he knew the biblical example of Paul. After all, he was a Baptist preacher.
Of course, Dr. King not only accepted the award but rose to the occasion, delivering a magnificent, incisive speech giving generous credit to all people who were struggling for basic social change and human rights—not only workers at SCLC, but people struggling for freedom everywhere.
Since that December in 1964 in Oslo, I’ve spent a good deal of time observing what we do with and to our leaders, and the impact that has on them—how we respond to them, our expectations of them, and the burden sometimes laid on leaders by how we respond to them. Our expectations of them can be a burden.
I knew that Martin’s mood during his hospital stay would pass and that he would get back to focusing on the work that was waiting for us back in Alabama, including our continuing challenge to the segregation system we were determined to dismantle.
Preparation for the Oslo trip would soon begin. It was an organizing project in itself, given the number of people traveling. My attention went to what I would wear at the ceremony. I located a woman with a reputation as an exquisite seamstress. Having seen her artistry, I commissioned her to make me a special outfit. Strolling through the fabric store, I chose a rich maroon velvet. I got fitted for a suit with a hat to match. It turned out indeed to be a strikingly beautiful outfit. Notwithstanding our minuscule SCLC salaries, never had I felt so committed to spend however much it would cost to make sure I looked smashingly good!
I had visited Caribbean islands before, but never had I traveled out of the continental United States on such a long journey. Our entourage of about thirty friends, staff, and family was divided into two groups. In those days, when air crashes were more common, Martin and his wife, Coretta Scott King, had a policy of not taking long trips on the same plane. It was a safety measure. They had four small children to care for. So Martin, his mother, and about half the group, including me, were on one plane with him; the other half, including Coretta, was on a different plane.
Something remarkable happened on our overnight flight. High above the clouds, as I was awakening, it seemed as though we were flying into the sunrise. Alberta King, Martin’s mother, said, “Dorothy, look out the window.” We beheld this unearthly view—seeing the sun coming up from such a height. Mrs. King started singing a song relevant to what we were witnessing. She sang, “Oh, day; yonder come day, day done broke in ’a my soul; yonder come day. It’s a glorious day, yonder come day!” (I cry as I write this so many years after the experience.) “Mama King,” as a few people called Martin’s mother, stood in the aisle and invited everyone to join with her in singing that song. A call-and-response song being one of the styles prevalent in African American churches, it was very easy for everyone to join in. When Mrs. King, who sometimes played the piano at Ebenezer Baptist Church, would sing “Oh, day,” the rest of our group would respond, “Yonder come day.” She would continue with “Day done broke in ’a my soul; yonder come day . . .” Someone would pick it up and soon there was a full chorus on that plane as we flew into the sunrise.
Amazingly, I don’t even recall if there were people on that plane other than our group. I think there were a few though I can’t be sure.
And yes, Dr. King would be up and energetically singing along with his mom and the rest of us. He loved to sing and always had fun doing so. He and the men on our team, Andy Young, Bernard Lafayette, Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Tee Walker—any who were around—would often form a quartet, a popular form of singing among Black men in the South at the time. They all loved to sing. (So did I.)
In any case, though we were all tired, we were all one excited and happy group. We welcomed the sun—and it seemed to welcome us to a memorable experience and a new beginning in our lives.
After landing in Oslo at Gardermoen airport and settling into our rooms, our intense program for the trip began. There were receptions, orientation meetings, and schedules to be handed out. The Nobel Committee planned some social events for us and we had the opportunity to plan a few gatherings that we ourselves wanted to have. I was asked to help handle a good bit of the organizing and logistics. This task mainly involved seeing that everyone was aware of the next thing on the schedule and where in the hotel our entourage needed to be and when.
After one dinner gathering we were all relaxing and having a great time in the dining room set aside for us. Everyone who could sing—and some who couldn’t—took center stage to perform his or her “show-off” piece. Usually it would be a song. I’m thinking now of what a fantastic singer Christine King Farris, Martin’s sister, is. I don’t remember Christine doing a solo that evening, but I wish she had! We would remember it still. Some in our group loved to recite poetry and did so that evening. Sometimes people would just emote a little, or a lot, about the event that brought us to Oslo. It was a joyous and emotional evening.
I was getting nervous because it was time for us to vacate the dining room. As I was trying rather anxiously, though diplomatically, to stop this spontaneous talent show, someone pulled my sleeve and pointed me toward Daddy King, Martin’s father. Daddy King was crying.
At that moment my compulsive need to keep the group moving as scheduled seemed, and indeed was, totally unimportant.
A sort of hush came over the group as Daddy King said, “I want you all to join me in this moment of thanksgiving for this honor bestowed on my son. I want you to lift your glasses and with me share in a toast to God.”
I never knew Daddy King, Reverend Martin Luther King Sr., to be a drinking man, but in this moment, some Baptist teaching aside, he would engage in and indeed lead us in a toast without hesitation. In any case, I know there was no one in this very special group who was programmed against imbibing. This was certainly a spiritual, prayerful moment and could be compared to Holy Communion if one was praising God. There came a poignant moment of silence as we raised our glasses and joined Daddy King in his toast to God.
There were now other teary eyes—some because of the deep feelings surrounding the whole event and some because of the unique moment and expression invoked by Daddy King.
• • •
JUANITA ABERNATHY had a medical emergency that evening. Marian Logan went with Juanita to the hospital and stayed with her overnight there. Marian Logan was my roommate on the trip. Marian was a real singer and used to sing in supper clubs (after our journey to Oslo, Marian always called me “roomie”). So the two of them missed this very special happening. Juanita wasn’t the only person who didn’t feel well that evening. Her husband, Ralph, wasn’t having physical pain but did express hurt feelings. Sitting in an adjacent room as Dr. King went for an interview with the press in Oslo, Ralph began to share with me the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the action that catapulted Martin into national and international prominence. Ralph described that now historic event, when in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a White man on the bus in Montgomery. Ralph shared with me how he had been on the scene long before Martin, how many of the people involved in the beginning of the boycott were people he had worked with for years before Martin came to Montgomery.
As he described the leadership role he had played, tears began to roll down his face. I could feel the pain he must have felt as his good friend was getting all this glory and he was hardly mentioned, actually not mentioned, at all. And of course as Ralph was pouring out his heart to me, his wife was in the hospital for emergency medical care. This may have also contributed to his sense of loss and pain that evening. I can’t be sure.
The next morning, before sunrise, we were welcomed and honored by a candlelight tea service. The “service girls” would simply open a bedroom door and walk in with a lit candle, tea, and pastry. I was told this was a typical holiday welcome in hotels in Oslo, especially for honored guests. It was December, close enough to the holidays, and there was already an aura of Christmas in the air. It was rather surprising that they felt no need to knock. They would just walk in carrying the lit candles. I don’t know if everyone in our group was so honored, but I was included.
The special day arrived—December 10, known as Human Rights Day to commemorate the approval of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1948. We would now spend hours dressing and otherwise getting ready for the Nobel ceremony.
We arrived at Oslo City Hall. There was a feeling of reverence and awe as we entered. As we took our seats, I was overtaken—moved to tears as the orchestra welcomed us by playing tunes from Porgy and Bess. But I also remember feeling confused by their selection of this popular opera. I knew the reason: the Nobel Committee wanted to play music they saw as representative of Black life in America. Even amid my tears and emotions of the moment I was just a little confused by the Norwegians’ choice in trying to connect with us, to make us feel at home.
I was able to release the feelings of confusion and even hurt as I realized they probably did not know the historical reaction to that opera, supposedly based on the life of Black people on a little island off the South Carolina coast. You see, Porgy and Bess, with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by his brother Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, was troubling to a lot of African American people, perhaps most especially African American artists. A play by the same name was written by DuBose and his wife, Dorothy, and was based on life in a fictitious Catfish Row, in turn based on the real life of Cabbage Row in Charleston, South Carolina. Septima Clark, whose home was in Charleston, told me that she used to see Porgy, who was crippled, scooting around on a cart. Still, a good number of Black people, including artists, assessed the play and the music purporting to emanate from Porgy’s life as demeaning.
Yet many of the songs became extremely popular. “Summertime,” which even I used to sing a lot, was probably the most popular song from the opera. I’ve read that some famous African American singers like Harry Belafonte refused to sing the songs or take a role in the opera. Many artists considered the opera and the play on which it was based to be racially demeaning in their portrayal of African Americans. But how could I expect the Norwegians to know this? I must ask Harry if his response to that opera has evolved or changed.
Nevertheless, as we entered the auditorium the feelings of love and awe and wonder at what we were about to experience were mixed with some of the old feelings aroused by the story of “Porgy.” Black Americans, blessed or cursed with what W. E. B. Du Bois called “double consciousness,” have always struggled with confused feelings as we reflect on life as it once was lived on these shores. Dr. King said once that it’s a wonder that “Negroes aren’t actually schizophrenic, based on our humanity and yet the way we are treated in this society.” Some of these mixed feelings can still be identified today in African Americana.
The introduction of the honoree, Martin Luther King Jr., would soon begin. Our friend, coworker, and leader was handsome in his tuxedo and ready to accept in a gracious, profound, and memorable way the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. While waiting for Martin to be introduced, I thought of what I had learned of the reason why Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prizes. His brother had died but the newspaper reporting the death wrote the obituary about Alfred, not his brother. Alfred had become rich and famous for creating dynamite. Many people had been injured and even killed by his invention, since no one had discovered how to safely transport the explosive. Alfred Nobel’s legacy would have been one of a careless killer if he had not found a way to correct this erroneous report of his death and especially to change people’s assessment of his life and legacy. Reading the obituary, he determined to find a way to transform his legacy as a “merchant of death” to one of an honored person who made great contributions to the betterment of lives the world over. Thus from his fortune and his vision and his wish to encourage and serve humanity, we have his endowment of the Nobel Prizes in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, economics, and, above all, peace.
Tears roll down my cheeks even now as I recall Martin being introduced on that memorable day in Oslo, Norway. The presentation speech was given by Mr. Gunnar Jahn, chairman of the Nobel Committee. Martin Luther King’s acceptance speech was and still is a masterpiece, synthesizing the goals of our freedom struggle and pointedly acknowledging those who indeed made the movement, one that would ultimately rearrange the social order in our country. Dr. King acknowledged that though he became the “pilot,” the “ground crew,” the untold numbers of ordinary people who were now giving their lives and energy to this movement, were the ones in whose recognition he was receiving this prestigious prize.
After acknowledging the royals and officers of the Nobel Committee, Dr. King said, “I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when twenty-two million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice.” He then spelled out what he saw as the reason our movement was chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize: “This award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time—the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. . . . Following the people of India, Negroes have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the peoples of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.” He affirmed his strong belief that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
In the days and months ahead, Dr. King emphasized regularly his awareness and appreciation of the fact that though he was receiving the great honor, it was the thousands of unsung activists who were the ones in whose name and honor he was accepting the award. He truly saw himself as the caretaker of the prestigious award and confirmed that it belonged to all involved in the struggle. Out of this spirit Martin would share the $54,000 prize with other civil rights organizations, keeping none of it for his own family (despite Coretta’s plea that it would help pay for their children’s college education).
Soberly, after the impressive award ceremony, the banquets, the tours and visits with European notables, we headed home, with a stopover first in Paris. There Martin insisted we locate an African American woman who now had a very successful restaurant that specialized in African American “soul food.” I couldn’t help but point out that we could get all that kind of food back home! Why would we order American southern soul food from our culture when we were in Paris? I exclaimed. But the restaurant was contacted, the order was placed, and soul food was soon delivered to our hotel. I’m reminded of a man who called me fairly recently wanting a statement declaring that Dr. King was “totally against eating meat,” because of the violence it involves to animals. I know the man was sad to hear me say that “Dr. King was happy when he had a beautiful steak on his plate.” Martin loved southern soul food. In any case, we were not as conscious then about the damage this style of cooking could potentially cause. Earlier African American soul food was always cooked with fat and much of it was fried. Fortunately there is now a healthier consciousness about food abroad in the land.
During this stopover in Paris we also enjoyed an evening at a nightclub that we had been told had an array of dancers and singers and other first-class entertainers. It was a very pleasant interlude. We thoroughly enjoyed the show.
Back on our own shores we had a planned stopover in New York City, where a reception was held for Dr. King and his party. I recall recognizing Malcolm X in the gathering of people waiting to welcome Dr. King and his party home. I walked up to Malcolm, who was in an aisle seat. I touched him on the shoulder. He looked startled, even fearful. He had grown a beard on his recent trip to Africa, but I recognized him right away. I met with Malcolm when he was on a visit to Atlanta in 1964, the year after he left the Nation of Islam and made his hajj to Mecca. He came to my office at SCLC and my home. We also went to the popular African American restaurant Paschal’s, on Hunter Street (now renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard).
Malcolm was a pleasant and charming fellow, and we spoke of many things. “I hear you like to sing,” he said to me. Malcolm was not courting but was, I was told, looking for strong Black women to join the organization he was planning. I shared with him that I’d never had a singing lesson, but that the songs of our Black church life seemed to just fit the bill in these days of struggle. I even told him how my dad seemed to enjoy telling people, “Dorothy can be washing the dishes and while she’s drying a plate she stops midway, holding the plate up until she finishes the song. Then goes on to finish drying the plate.”
Back in our own hometown of Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. was born and raised, there was a big debate as to whether the city would officially welcome him home and celebrate this triumph—whether they wanted to honor Dr. King in any way on his return for having received the Nobel Peace Prize. At this point in our fight for social justice not everyone was happy about the honor Martin had received, especially because of the boost this honor would give to the Black freedom movement and to him as a leader. After all, there had been protest demonstrations in Atlanta as in other cities. Atlanta’s White community, most notably the elite that still ruled the city, could not be pleased with this still young African American preacher being so honored—and increasingly at a global level. There was a sense, too, that even some older Atlanta Black leaders could not bring themselves to be happy for Martin’s honor. The honoring of this young preacher was somehow felt to be a threat to them. They saw a younger generation emerging and actually replacing them—they who had seen themselves as the Black leaders in Atlanta. These feelings were visible to many of us.
My beautiful velvet suit made especially for this notable trip was stolen after I accidentally left it in my car one day, intending to wear it in a fund-raising fashion show at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Coming down from the heights of celebration, I and all the others on this journey with Dr. King were putting away our fancy outfits now, donning our movement clothes, preparing to continue confronting Bull Connor and other forces of violence that reacted to our nonviolent protests. Interestingly, through the years I have not thought about the loss of my fabulous maroon velvet suit. And there is an important lesson in that. Putting my full energy into our mission caused me to totally let go of any focus on material things.
We were soon back in the trenches—in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Mississippi, struggling against the system of what I called our American-style apartheid—rigid separation of the races that was enforced by legal and extralegal means.
And of course the struggle wasn’t just against Bull Connor. We had to envision ways to expand our movement to intensify pressure on the system and especially the holders of political and economic power, and make them see the rightness of our cause. In a sense, we were just getting started.