In May 1964, Dorothy Cotton was in a Methodist church when she stood to exhort a crowd of civil rights marchers to take to the streets in love, not hate. A few blocks away stood about 100 white men and boys, supposedly Ku Klux Klan members, with clubs, sticks and broom handles. “Don’t judge them by the colour of their skin – don’t think of them as white people, but as people with guilt in their souls” she said. [Independent]
Dorothy Lee Foreman was raised in a shack in the segregated South of America and went on to be one of a handful of women in the top ranks of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She played an important role in the organisation, leading an education programme credited with teaching thousands of Americans about their basic rights of citizenship. This involved monthly 5-day workshops in which people studied the US Constitution and African American history, learned how to read a voting ballot and organise credit unions and were taught the ins and outs of community activism. Individuals who attended the workshops returned home to teach citizenship classes of their own. By the mid-1960s, 2,600 graduates had led workshops that were attended by 23,000 others.
She went on to serve in regional government under President Jimmy Carter, was vice president for field operations at the King Centre for Nonviolent Social Change (worth a visit in Atlanta, Georgia), served as director of student activities at Cornell, started a consulting company on social change and wrote her memoir entitled If Your Back’s Not Bent.
Dorothy died a few weeks ago in June 2018.
There have been, and continue to be, some extraordinary people for whom justice is all-consuming, so much so that their lives become the personification of it. For many, their names are remembered with great admiration and even awe. For many thousands more, we will never know their name, what they did and what they suffered as a result of seeking equality and opportunity on behalf of others.
Certain examples of historical rights abuses are now taught and students may be aghast at what they read. “How could they?”. “How was that possible?”. “Why was that allowed to happen?”. The civil rights movements of 1960s (and later) America and anti-apartheid activities in South Africa are now, largely, shared as history, lessons from the past that we may not repeat those mistakes. Of course, that is not true. There is still inequality in these and many other lands. These prejudices can be based upon colour, ethnic origin (think the Rohingya people in Myanmar), language (as claimed by English speakers in French speaking Cameroon), religion, politics and so many other excuses for discrimination and violence.
In all these situations, there are individuals who are putting themselves in the firing line and exhorting the people to protest. They are people of great vision, driven by a burning indignance as to how they and others are being treated. They are people of passion, yes, but also people of great restraint as they try to bring change by peaceful means. Amazingly, they are sometimes individuals who do not even belong to the people group they are committing to. Yet they find it possible to ‘walk in their shoes’.
Irish Methodist World Development & Relief partners with the Church Land Programme in South Africa. They, in turn, partner with Abahlahli baseMjondolo, a nationwide shack dwellers’ movement for social change. In May, this year, S’fiso Ngcobo, Chair of the local Abahlali branch near Durban, was killed. He was shot seven times, just to make sure, in his home by three attackers. He was the family breadwinner with four children. Five members of the movement have been killed in eight months. The government has set up a task force to investigate political killings (there have also been 14 politicians killed in the area since the beginning of 2016) but there is no Abahlali representation on the group. As Right Reverend Rubin Phillip, Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Natal, says, “The Municipality needs to engage with Abahlali baseMondjolo on a democratic basis and to work together with the movement to build a more just society.”.
The struggle still goes on in the world so that “Every person’s God-given potential will be fulfilled” (the WDR vision). Dorothy Cotton’s name and legacy will live on. She was an incredible person born into an appalling time of prejudice, division, fear and violence. Although he may not be remembered as much beyond his own community and organisation, S’fiso had the same heart as her and, ultimately, made the extreme sacrifice for the rights of himself and others. WDR has partners in South Africa, Nepal, Zimbabwe, Palestine, India, Cambodia and more, that are involved similar work. We pray for their protection.
What would I do, if I found myself in an institutional situation of discrimination and prejudice? Would I stand up and challenge the injustice despite the risks? I don’t know.
Joe Slovo was a white Lithuanian Jew in South Africa (died in 1995). He was head of the Communist Party there and he was an anti-apartheid activist. His wife was killed by a parcel bomb sent by two white South African policemen. After apartheid had fallen, he was in a café with his daughter Gillian. A white South African came over to him in tears and said, “Thank you for showing the world that not all white South Africans are as cowardly as I have been”.
Dorothy, S’fiso and Joe, you inspire us to be better.