Samuel D. Cook, 88: Revered educator, activist ‘was walking integrity’

To understand how large Samuel DuBois Cook loomed in higher education, you have to start from the beginning.

Born in nearby Griffin, Cook arrived in Atlanta in 1944.

Only 15, he was too young to go to war, but a perfect candidate for Benjamin Elijah Mays' early admissions program at Morehouse College, designed to identify qualified young black students while most older students were fighting in Europe.

The program had also tapped his classmate, Martin Luther King Jr.

A generation later, Cook is honored at colleges all over the country from historically black colleges like Dillard University to institutions like Duke University.

Samuel DuBois Cook, a renowned political scientist and scholar as well as a human rights activist, died May 29 in his Atlanta home. He was 88.

His funeral will be at 11 a.m. on June 6, at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse.

Read and sign the online guestbook for Samuel D. Cook

“Dr. Cook was walking integrity,” said Lawrence E. Carter, dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College. “He was a tremendously hospitable soul. He loved to laugh, and was as funny as could be. He loved preachers, and had a profound spiritual awareness. I will miss his humility, his sincerity, and his honesty.”

Cook was born Nov. 21, 1928 to the Rev. Marcus Emanuel (M.E.) Cook  and Mary Cook in Griffin. By the time he arrived at Morehouse, his father had already instilled in him the value of education.

Cook became Morehouse’s student body president and founded the campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It was also at Morehouse that his friendship with King blossomed. The two had met earlier on a trip to Connecticut, where they both earned money picking tobacco.

In a 2012 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, Cook recalled being moved by King's 1948 senior sermon: "I remember M.L. saying in that sermon that there are moral laws in the universe that we cannot violate with impunity any more than we can violate physical laws with impunity," Cook said. "He was talking about the moral order of the universe and our relationship as brothers in that universe. It was the most moving experience. It was a powerful, powerful address. He soared."

Cook and King remained friends until King’s death in 1968. One of Cook’s favorite stories about him dates to 1966 or 1967, when he and his wife had the Kings over for a holiday meal. He and King were both the sons of Baptist preachers. Cook and his wife struggled about whether to serve King eggnog with a little something extra.

“I told her don’t just give M.L. this eggnog, put a little bourbon in it. She said, ‘No, you can’t do that. You can’t give him any bourbon, ’ ” Cook said. “But she put a little in there. When she gave it to him he tasted it and said in his unique voice, ‘Sylvia, honey, I don’t know what in the world you put in this eggnog but whatever it was, put in some more.’”

Cook graduated from Morehouse in 1948 with a degree in history and received his master’s and doctorate in political science at Ohio State University.

In 1955, after a short stint in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Cook taught political science at Southern University in Baton Rouge. In 1956 he moved to Atlanta University and became politically active, working on black voter registration with the local NAACP chapter. As chairman of the school’s political science department, he organized and moderated forums political and civil rights forums.

It also brought attention to his bookish demeanor. “He would be considered a nerd today, because he only talked about books. Early on, he missed a great portion of his social life because he was in school,” said his wife Sylvia, who was a junior at Spelman College and working at Atlanta University in 1957. “He was very shy, but very down to earth and friendly.”

The 6-foot-3 Cook caught her eye — almost by mistake.

Like many African-Americans at the time, Sylvia Fields was a Republican and proudly wore a GOP button on her sweater. “Sam came in and said, ‘Young lady, why do you have on that Republican button?’ ” she recalled. She didn’t know who Cook was, and told him in not so friendly terms that Republicans had helped Spelman and Democrats were not allies to blacks.

Later, she saw him speak at one of his forums. Afterward, she introduced herself formally and apologized. She switched parties. The two started courting. They married on March 18, 1960.

He would also teach at the University of Illinois and UCLA.

In 1966, the couple moved to Durham and Duke University when Cook became the first African-American to hold a tenure- track appointment at a major Southern white university.

Between 1981 and 1993, Cook was on the Duke board of trustees. In 1997, the Samuel DuBois Cook Society was founded in his honor to promote the development of black studies at the school and in 2015, Duke created the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity.

"It is almost a cliché to say that you are honored by somebody, but I am honored that he lent his name to the research center and to my professorship at Duke," said the center's founding director and the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics, William "Sandy" Darity Jr. "Our center focuses on social justice and economic fairness. Those are the types of issues that have been at the forefront of his scholarship and personal activism."

In 1974, Cook was named the fourth president of Dillard University, an HBCU in New Orleans. He strengthened the curriculum, increased the percentage of faculty members with doctorates, increased student enrollment by 50 percent and started the first Japanese language studies program at an HBCU. In 1989 he created the Dillard University National Conference on Black-Jewish Relations. Later President Bill Clinton appointed him to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

In 1993, Dillard named its new fine arts and communication center after him. He remained the school’s president until he retired in 1997 as president emeritus.

Walter Kimbrough, the current president of Dillard and an Atlanta native as well, said that of all the previous leaders of the school, he had to most in common with Cook.

“Our presidencies were influenced heavily by Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays. In reading many of Dr. Cook’s writings and excerpts from speeches, Cook spoke passionately about social justice just like Mays did. He was unwavering in his core beliefs, and unafraid to challenge those close to him,” Kimbrough said. “While I only had just a few opportunities to share with Dr. Cook and his wife over the past decade, mainly at United Methodist Black College Fund meetings, not only did I enjoy our thoughtful conversations, but he shared a genuine warmth that I appreciated.”

Cook's last book was "Benjamin E. Mays: His Life, Contributions, and Legacy."

He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society and held honorary degrees from Morehouse, Ohio State, Dillard University, Duke, Illinois College, the University of New Orleans and Chicago Theological Seminary. He was initiated into the Psi Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., at Morehouse and was a member of the Eta Omega Chapter in Atlanta.

Along with his wife, Samuel DuBois Cook is survived by a son, Samuel DuBois Cook Jr.; a daughter, Karen J. Cook; two grandchildren, Alexandra Renee Cook and Samuel DuBois Cook III; and his daughter-in-law Nicole Cook.