Born on 17 December 1938, Lula C. Dorsey grew up sharecropping in Tribbett, Mississippi, and from an early age took an interest in civil rights and social justice. Inspired by her mother, who read her stories out of the Chicago Defender, Dorsey began to study the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s techniques for organizing volunteers.
Dorsey began working for Head Start in 1964 before moving on two years later to Operation Help, a program that sought jobs and resources for the disadvantaged. Her activities brought her into contact with Fannie Lou Hamer, who inspired Dorsey to become involved in the civil rights movement and to join the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, for which Dorsey began organizing boycotts and demonstrations.
In 1968 Dorsey earned her general equivalency diploma through an experimental program at Tufts University before attending the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she earned a master’s degree in social work in 1973. She went on to earn a doctorate in the subject from Howard University. Dorsey subsequently returned to Mississippi and resumed her work with Head Start, this time as the director of social services in Greenville. She also began working on prison reform, serving as associate director of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons from 1974 to 1983. During this time, Dorsey published numerous articles on prison reform in the Jackson Advocate. She also wrote and published a book, Cold Steel, describing life in Mississippi’s Parchman Prison.
Because of her vast knowledge on the prison system, Dorsey served on Jimmy Carter’s National Council for Economic Opportunity in 1978–79. In 1983, the American Civil Liberties Union honored Dorsey for her work in prison reform. Dorsey also helped to establish the community action programs in Bolivar and Sunflower Counties and founded the Mississippi Office of Economic Opportunity. She served as the executive director of the Delta Health Center in Mound Bayou from 1988 to 1995, when she began working as a clinical associate professor in the Family Medicine Department at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. She also served as associate director of the Delta Research and Cultural Institute at Mississippi Valley State University.
The mother of six children, Dorsey resided in Jackson until her death on 21 August 2013. She appeared in several films documenting women’s roles in the struggle for civil rights, including Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders. The Jackson-based Dr. Mary S. Nelums Foundation honors Dorsey’s work with the annual Dr. L. C. Dorsey Social Activist Award.
- Telisha Dionne Bailey, “‘Please Don’t Forget About Me’: The History of Crime and Punishment in Parchman Prison, 1890–1980” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2015)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Karen Rutherford, Mississippi Writers Page website, www.olemiss.edu/mwp/
- Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders website, www.sisters-shoulders.org