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The Washington Post profiled Tim Cook, CEO of one of the world’s most valuable companies. Cook graduated from the high school in Robertsdale, Alabama, in 1978.
It was there, faced with stark racism, that Cook developed his sense of social justice.
Cook is gay, and he knew he was different. He is not celebrated in Robertson, as he should be, probably because he is gay. No, because he is gay.
Cook’s experiences growing up in Robertsdale – detailed by him in public speeches and recalled by others — are key to understanding how a once-quiet tech executive became one of the world’s most outspoken corporate leaders. Apple has long emphasized the privacy of its products, but today Cook talks about privacy not as an attribute of a device, but as a right — a view colored by his own history.
For Cook, it was in this tiny town midway between Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla., that a book-smart boy developed what he calls his “moral sense.”
On the surface easy-going and popular, according to former classmates, Cook seemed too aware of the injustices around him.
“I have to believe that growing up in Alabama, during the 1960s and witnessing what he did, especially as someone who is gay, he understood the dangers of remaining silent,” said Kerry Kennedy, a human-rights activist who has met Cook several times and whose father, Robert F. Kennedy, Cook considers one of his heroes.
“He’s not afraid to stand up when he sees something wrong,” she added.
Cook’s chance to stand up came early, when he was in just the sixth or seventh grade.
In the early 1970s, he was riding his new 10-speed bicycle at night along a rural road just outside Robertsdale when he spotted a burning cross. He pedaled closer.
He saw Klansmen in white hoods and robes. The cross was on the property of a family he knew was black. It was almost more than he could comprehend.
Without thinking, he shouted, “Stop!”
The group turned toward the boy. One of them raised his hood. Cook recognized the man as a local deacon at one of the dozen churches in town, but not the one attended by Cook’s family.
The man warned the boy to keep moving.
“This image was permanently imprinted in my brain and it would change my life forever,” Cook recalled in a speech in 2013, an incident that he also has recounted to friends.
A few years later, at age 16, Cook won an essay contest sponsored by a rural electric company and, as part of the prize, met Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the segregationist who resisted the federal government’s attempts to integrate the state’s public schools during the ’60s.
Cook shook Wallace’s hand that day, but described it as “a betrayal of my own beliefs,” he said in a speech last year. “It felt wrong. Like I was selling a piece of my soul.”
On the same trip, Cook met President Jimmy Carter at the White House. To Cook, the difference between the two men was impossible to miss — “one was right and one was wrong.”
Knowing Tim Cook’s moral center is strong, I wonder if he would stand with those of us who are trying to stop the privatization of public education, the effort by giant corporations to monetize the schools and turn them into “investments” with a sure “rate of return”?