Friday, September 24, 2010

Woody Cooper, a brave man

Woody Cooper made himself part of Charlotte history, first for what he didn't do, and then for what he did.

He was a good man who died Thursday at age 70, after fighting off cancer for almost two years, and I want to tell you about him.

Woody was in the crowd at Harding High School on Sept. 4, 1957, when a 15-year-old black girl named Dorothy Counts integrated the school. The white kids taunted her, spit on her, threw things at her. The abuse continued for four days, until her parents pulled her out of school.

That moment -- and especially a photo taken that day by Observer photographer Don Sturkey -- became news around the world. The great writer James Baldwin, who had moved to France to escape racism, saw Dorothy's photo and decided he had to come back home to fight.

Over the years the story would come up from time to time, or the paper would publish the photo again, and it always haunted Woody. He wasn't one of the people who insulted or threw things at Dorothy that day. But he didn't try to protect her, either. And he came to decide that there wasn't much difference between hurting and failing to help.

One day in 2006 -- 49 years after that day at school -- Woody showed up for his regular Sunday-school class at Assurance United Methodist. That morning the lesson was about sins of omission. The teacher, Sam Smith, asked if anybody had a sin of omission to talk about.

Woody raised his hand and said: Dorothy Counts.

Smith happened to have a book with him -- Frye Gaillard's "The Dream Long Deferred," a history of school integration in Charlotte. Don Sturkey's photo of Dorothy was on the cover.

Woody pointed to a boy in the photo and said: "That's me."

And the very next day, the Observer ran a story catching up with Dorothy Counts.

Woody saw this as a sign. He got an e-mail address for Dorothy, who now goes by Dot Counts-Scoggins. He sent her a letter that said in part: God works in mysterious ways. It was the first time any of the other students had tried to contact her.

The next year, I wrote a story on the 50th anniversary of that day in 1957, looking at it through that famous photograph. I set out to find some of the white kids who were in the photo, and of course Woody's name came up right away.

He and Dot had been corresponding. She had been upset at first that Woody waited so long to contact to her. But she saw that he was genuine. What she had done as a 15-year-old took tremendous courage. But when he reached out nearly 50 years later, that took some courage, too.

After my story, and Steve Crump's documentary on that day at Harding, Dot and Woody became close friends. They spoke at churches and schools together, talked by e-mail or on the phone.

"It made him feel so good to make that connection after all those years," says Woody's wife, Judy.

Woody had been in and out of hospitals, had multiple bouts of chemo and radiation, and finally last weekend went into hospice. Wednesday, the night before he died, Dot came to see him.

"He didn't know I was there," she says. "But we spent two and a half hours together. He and I became such good friends. I loved him and I know that he loved me."

Woody Cooper's funeral is 11 a.m. Saturday at Assurance United Methodist. Judy is going to try to speak. And Dot will be there, in the crowd.

Woody Cooper (2007 staff file photo, GARY O'BRIEN - gobrien@charlotteobserver.com)

10 comments:

wiley said...

Good story Tommy...

RIP

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Tommy, for a beautiful story about courage and reconciliation. And also for me, a gentle nudge to look in the face my own sins of omission and perhaps find some courage, hidden within, to follow in Woody's footsteps.

He made this world a better place.

Anonymous said...

It's never to late to say you are sorry. Great Story!

Anonymous said...

D*m you Tommy. Why do you always slip up behind me and make me cry?

Lynne Stevenson said...

What a wonderful tribute to the man Woody Cooper ultimately became in adulthood! There is no statute of limitations on forgiveness or courage. May God bless and keep his friends and family, especially Ms. Counts and his wife, in His loving grasp today and always.

Dr. Jimmy said...

Many of us raised in the South have changed our viewpoints, like Woody did. I remember "whites only" bathrooms in Belk's downtown and sitting only on the front seats of the bus because we had to avoid contact with "them." We have come a long ways since those times, and yet we still have so far to go.

Anonymous said...

It still behooves me that people thought they were right in what they did .They still believes Black were wanting to be with them but the truth is they were fighting for equality. Blacks from that era will tell you they felt they were better people for not hating and how they held on to their love of God and another secret they still do think they were better.

Ronald said...

Great story, Tommy.
I read the first 5 or 6 paragraphs, went and got a cup of coffee, and then came back and finished it. The break kept me from tearing up- I hate it when that happens!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Tommy for your wonderful words about my father. He was a brave, truthful, loving person. I am so proud of all the things he did in his life. I would also like to thank all the folks for there kind thoughts.
God Bless You All,
Mitchell Haywood Cooper

Bob said...

This great story (thank you, Tommy) endures. I just (3/4/2015) shared the link to this excellent story about Woody Cooper (RIP) with friends with whom I was discussing the sad incident in 1957 of Dorothy Counts — that brave young girl walking so steadfastly in her beautiful dress, her head held high.

Thank you, Tommy Tomlinson.