President’s Ballroom, Washington Duke Inn, Durham, NC
Thank you for the kind introduction. I am honored to be here to celebrate Dr. Cook’s life and career. I want to begin by recognizing his family members who are with us tonight, including his wife Sylvia. We are delighted to welcome you back to Duke University.
And as this is the first dinner since Dr. Cook passed away, we are also paying tribute to his advocacy for social justice and his enduring contributions to the Duke community. In that spirit, I also want to recognize tonight’s award winners who are carrying on his legacy here on campus: Andrea Lynette Harris, Debra Brandon, Felicia Tittle, Danielle Purifoy, and Michael Ivory. Congratulations.
This is the second event in as many months where the Duke community has had the opportunity to reflect on that important legacy. A few weeks ago, I had the honor of welcoming students, faculty, staff, and neighbors to Duke Chapel for a commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And while I spent some time discussing Dr. King’s visit to Page Auditorium in 1964, I left half of the story of his connection to Duke untold.
You are likely already familiar with the coda to which I’m referring – a peaceful protest broke out at Duke immediately following Dr. King’s assassination in April 1968, a vigil that drew students, employees, and faculty of all races and creeds to the steps of the Chapel, to what we now know as Abele Quad. For eight days and nights, the crowd camped out under the stars and gothic spires. They sang protest songs and picked on acoustic guitars. They listened to impassioned speeches through crackling megaphones. And they called for justice at Duke, in our state, and for our nation.
I bring this up now for two reasons. The first is that we will celebrate this spring the 50th anniversary of the vigil. We are planning to host exhibitions, panel discussions, and community events continuing the campus conversation that began on those eight days in April half a century ago.
The second reason I bring this up tonight is that Samuel DuBois Cook played a pivotal role in this vitally important moment in our university history. Dr. Cook was our official representative to Dr. King’s funeral at Morehouse College, and he traveled to Atlanta just as the first stirrings of protest were beginning here at Duke.
He returned two days later to a campus in open ferment. National news trucks circled the quad, and the crowds of students, faculty, and neighbors had swelled to the hundreds at the foot of the Chapel. And remarkably, at this moment of tremendous sorrow and tension, Dr. Cook addressed the vigil with a message of hope.
He began his remarks by recounting a conversation with a white colleague, who had asked him how he could cope with this great tragedy. At first, Dr. Cook didn’t have an answer. He shared the frustration and bewilderment that so many were feeling in the days after King’s assassination, the sense of having lost so great a champion of justice and equality.
But after much reflection, after returning from Dr. King’s funeral to see the crowds so peacefully calling for change, he told the students holding the vigil that we can only cope with hatred by continuing to affirm life. He told them that we can only find peace with a divisive past by hoping for a better future. He told them that we can only heal our national divisions by believing in the promise of America.
Tonight, that message still resonates. In the face of the resurgence of hatred and division, it would be easy for us to retreat to frustration and bewilderment. But Dr. Cook’s vision of hope, of a better future, instead compels us to action, to listen to our neighbors’ voices and to stand for what we know is right.
Tonight, a half century after the silent vigil, we are still inspired by Dr. Cook’s enduring voice, calling on us through the years to build a stronger, more inclusive community, one that finally fulfills the great promise that he glimpsed on the Chapel quad in those difficult days in April.
Thank you and again, congratulations to tonight’s winners.