When Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook passed away May 29 our nation and world lost a very creative and distinguished political scientist, trailblazing Black scholar, and towering oak role model for his students. I was blessed to be among them as a Spelman College student in his political theory course at Atlanta University.
A Georgia native, he entered Morehouse College when he was 15 years old and was in the same class as his friend and fellow 15-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. At Morehouse he was student body president and founded the campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He received his master and Ph.D. degrees from The Ohio State University and taught at Southern University, Atlanta University, the University of Illinois, UCLA and Duke University. At Duke University he was the first African American to hold a regular faculty appointment at a predominantly White Southern college or university. In 1974 he became president of historically Black Dillard University in New Orleans where he served for 22 years. He also served on the Duke Board of Trustees during his tenure as president of Dillard.
Dr. Cook was the first Black president of the Southern Political Science Association, vice-president of the American Political Science Association, president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History Inc., and chair of the Presidents of the United Negro College Fund. President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities, President Bill Clinton appointed him to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, and Duke University established the Samuel DuBois Cook Society, the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, and a postdoctoral fellowship in its Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Social Sciences in his honor. Yet his legacy went far beyond his academic positions and many awards. For generations of his students, including me, “Dr. Sam” was a great gift and I’ll never ever forget his jolly laughter, tough critiques but positive encouragements.
When I was a Spelman College student in Atlanta, Dr. Sam was a professor of Political Science and Theory at Atlanta University. I was led to him by historian and Spelman Social Science Department Chair Howard Zinn, my wonderful professor at Spelman who nominated me for a Merrill Scholarship to study abroad my junior year in Paris and Geneva. To prepare me for Europe and the bigger world, Howie’s (as we called him) first step was to send me to Dr. Sam’s political theory course. What a wonderful gift that was. Dr. Sam was an extraordinarily creative, engaging and gifted teacher. His wonderful exercises of asking students to see and create a nation and world vision through the eyes of a wide range of thinkers, activists and political theorists from Gandhi and King to Lenin, Trotsky and Tolstoy grounded me in the crucial importance of seeing and analyzing the world through the lens of others and learning to think out of the box and become a critical thinker.
Dr. Sam was a welcoming, attentive, supportive — and demanding — teacher, always stretching his students to think and act with disciplined intellect, emotion and rigor. I remember his firm but gentle criticism when he returned a paper I gave him during my very busy student sit-in protest days as not being up to his or my standards — telling me that going to jail, or planning to, was no excuse for second rate work. I heard him loud and clear and thank him. He encouraged student participation in the Civil Rights Movement and moderated “town meetings” between civil rights leaders and students, but he emphasized that doing school work was equally important for becoming a leader. I was proud when he joined Duke’s faculty and when he became president of Dillard our friendship continued and he asked me to join Dillard’s board. He and his wonderful wife Sylvia — a sister Spelmanite — were married for more than 50 years and left enduring legacies in all the young people who benefited from their knowledge, caring and hospitality. And what a wonderful laugh he had!
If only every young person was blessed enough to have the kind of teachers who not only serve as mentors and friends but who are thoughtful, intellectually challenging, and morally grounded enough to help shape how they see the world. I thank Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook for his wisdom, integrity, rigor and caring in shaping generations of students to pursue economic justice and civil rights for all. The lessons he taught about seeking and remaining open to many points of view but never losing your moral core are needed now more than ever if we are to raise a new generation who will be servant leaders, globalists, and not isolationists who are able to navigate and lead in a diverse, rapidly changing world.