Andy Burness: “We all have THAT teacher who shaped our purpose as a human being. Dr. Cook is mine.”
On February 19, 2013, Andy Burness offered the following words at the Samuel Dubois Cook Society Awards Dinner in Durham, N.C. Dr. Cook, a close personal friend of Dr. Martin Luther King’s, was the first African American professor at Duke University and has the distinction of being the first African American to hold a tenured faculty appointment at any predominantly white college or university in the South. He has also had a tremendous impact on Andy’s life as a professor, mentor, and friend.
Remarks of Andy Burness,
President of Burness Communications
Samuel DuBois Cook Society Awards Dinner
Duke University, February 19, 2013
I have to say that it is almost preposterous that I would stand here as a substitute for Samuel DuBois Cook. You have NO IDEA what an honor this is for me. I think both of my feet would fit into one of his shoes—literally and figuratively.
Dr. Cook has and has had an outsized influence on so many people, even those of you here who may never have known him or seen him. Tonight, we honor the Sammie Award winners, and their work. They are Dr. Cook’s embodiment of the community, the beloved community where we look out for each other, where we are only satisfied when the lost and the least among us are restored to a place of hope and opportunity.
We wouldn’t be here tonight if we weren’t all invested in the pursuit of righteousness, justice, goodness, compassion, and advocacy on behalf of our common humanity.
My personal guiding light in this journey is Samuel DuBois Cook.
Ben Reese asked me to say a few words about my relationship with Dr. Cook and the impact he’s had on my life. So, always the dutiful student, I called Dr. Cook last week, and asked “What should I say?” He laughed—and really laughed—as if this was MY problem—and finally came to: “Say whatever is in your heart and in your mind. Be yourself.” So, that’s what I’ll try to do.
The bottom line is this: Sam Cook was the teacher in my life who most shaped my values, my politics, my work, my purpose as a human being. We all have “that teacher” in our heads. He is mine.
I entered Duke in 1970, well into the civil rights movement, two years following Martin Luther King’s assassination, with our nation embroiled in the upheaval associated with the Vietnam War. I double majored in Political Science and Psychology. But, truth be told, I really majored in Sportswriting. I became the sports editor of the Chronicle—and you won’t believe this—I had the distinct pleasure of being the editor during a streak of 43 consecutive basketball road losses in the ACC. Now, THAT is ancient history!
So, when you’re writing about losses—and more losses—you’re looking for something different to write about—anything! And, it turns out that the Martin Luther King games—a national track meet—were held at Duke in 1973. I could go to Al Buehler to learn about the meet itself, but who better to explain the significance of Dr. King than Professor Cook? I had taken a Political Theory course from him, and knew already that he was the most dynamic, exciting, and inspirational teacher I had met.
He spoke of ideals.
He pushed us to think hard about our values.
He taught us that government at its best can help empower those most in need. He used phrases I had never heard in political discourse, starting with the word “community”—almost a cliché today. He spoke of “our common destiny”; “social conscience”; “sense of responsibility”; “our bond of common suppositions”; and, above all, our “beloved community.” Twice a week, I felt that I had a front row seat at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. His lectures were lectures, but they were also sermons. There was an unmistakable spiritual element to his words, and he was the most mesmerizing speaker I had ever heard. His classes inspired great introspection.
When I graduated, I kept hearing Dr. Cook’s voice: I felt that I had no choice but to carry the quest for the beloved community into my own life. My resume suggested that I should be a sportswriter, but I had a calling. I went to Washington hoping to do good through public policy – and for me, it has worked out that way.
Twenty seven years ago, I founded a public relations company to support nonprofit organizations—committed to advancing social change in the United States and around the world. I appropriated Dr. Cook’s language, saying that we would try to “improve the human condition.” I feel that we have stayed true to his vision. And, two years ago, at our company’s 25th anniversary, in my remarks to my colleagues, I reflected on all we had accomplished, starting with specific reference to the inspiration of Samuel DuBois Cook.
There is so much to be done to realize the community and the world about which Dr. Cook speaks. Today’s Sammies are living proof of great possibility and the power of any one of us to palpably affect people’s lives for the better. But there is so much more we can do achieve the humanity, equity and community that are the foundation of the Samuel DuBois Cook Society.
With our national safety net fraying, Angela Blackwell is right when she says that equity is a superior growth model. It’s not OK that WHERE you live on the Washington, D.C. metro line largely determines HOW LONG you can expect to live. Or that the Black unemployment rate is nearly double that of whites.
It’s not OK that only a quarter of African-American and Latino youth have at least two years of postsecondary education, and that in Wake County, North Carolina, only half of the African-American and Latino students can claim reading comprehension at grade level. And it’s not OK that babies born to women lacking high school diplomas are nearly twice as likely to die before their first birthdays as those whose mothers completed college.
There is so much more to be done, and I know Dr. Cook would celebrate your achievements if he were with us this evening.
I’d like to close with this: Dr. Cook has been a force for collaboration between Blacks and Jews, given their common oppression that dates way back in history. He even authored a book on the subject. So, I believe he would approve of this reading from the Passover seder that my family says every year. It’s from Martin Niemoller, an anti-Nazi German theologian:
First, they came for the Communists but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out.
Then, they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists but I was not one of them, so I did not speak out.
Then, they came for the Jews but I was not Jewish so I did not speak out.
And, when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.
Samuel DuBois Cook has devoted his life to speaking out, to telling the truth, and to teaching us the real meaning of “social justice.” I am so, so grateful to have him in MY life. And, I suspect we can ALL say that he has made a positive difference in ALL of our lives.