Cliff Cockerham helps
keep King's dream alive

One of the greatest threats to the national holiday honoring the late Martin Luther King Jr. is that it could become just another excuse for a "Macy's white sale," according to Cliff Cockerham.

Director of Alumni University in the Association of Emory Alumni, Cockerham also served for the past three years as co-chair of the College and University Involvement Committee of the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission. The Commission was charged by Congress in the 1980s with creating the holiday, and the committee Cockerham co-chaired was designed to assist colleges and universities in creating their own King holiday celebrations. Cockerham was selected for the post largely because of the reputation Emory's King Week celebration enjoys nationally.

The commission was created with the knowledge that it eventually would cease to exist when Congress determined that its work was finished. That came to pass on Oct. 1, when the commission and Cockerham's committee both went out of business. However, the extensive network of college and university participants in the committee's work continues to share information informally.

Keeping history alive
A key challenge for Cockerham and his colleagues is making the King holiday relevant for a generation of students who did not live through the civil rights movement. "That has been one of our greatest burdens," he said, "to make history come alive for people, to have them take this as an occasion to really gain context and get some wisdom from understanding the past, so we don't repeat the mistakes we've made as a people."

Another important issue for Cockerham is making the holiday meaningful for non-minorities. "I think there are a lot of people who don't take the holiday seriously," Cockerham said. "They see it as a black thing, and I think that's a real mistake. I think it's an opportunity for everyone in America to come together, and it's an opportunity for white people to really embrace a portion of America's history and legacy that comes out of the minority community. It's an opportunity to show solidarity without sacrificing anything of themselves, because I think King was and is an American hero."

Ensuring that the King holiday remains a vital, unifying experience for all Americans will counter what Cockerham sees as the greatest danger for the holiday-that its meaning gets lost in a proliferation of department store sales. "I think that would be a terrible thing," he said, "and that's one reason I so passionately invested myself in the holiday commission and the college and university committee, because their message was to encourage campuses to talk to students about the holiday as a day of service. And I think they've been successful in getting across that message."

"Model minority student"
Cockerham's dedication to working for equality for minority Americans is rooted largely in his family's rich history. His paternal grandmother was Filipino and Spanish. His paternal grandfather was Chinese and English, "by way of Mississippi, and was an American citizen living in the expatriate community in the Philippines. So my father was a second-generation American born and raised overseas."

Soon after arriving at college, Cockerham underwent a rapid transformation and decided to start questioning everything. "That's where I stopped concentrating on what I could win and focused on what I could do that could make a difference," he said. Cockerham began doing volunteer work and joined a service fraternity. After college, he entered a Jesuit seminary and worked at Covenant House in Times Square as well as a jail ministry in Syracuse, N.Y. He also worked at a hospice for terminal cancer patients in the Bronx while studying liberation theology.

Eventually, Cockerham left the Jesuits and entered graduate school at Georgetown University, where he spent half his time working on a PhD in molecular biology and the other half on service and volunteer projects. He later helped write a National Institutes of Health Research Agenda for Minority Aging.

Cockerham came to Emory as a fellow in cardiology and became active in minority issues on campus. He served as chair of the President's Commission on the Status of Minorities in 1992-93.

In Emory's observance of this year's King Week celebration Jan. 21-26, Cockerham hopes the University community will embrace one of the primary themes of King's work: that those who live in a democratic society must care about the well-being of all who live in that society. "This idea is important," Cockerham said, "because it connects the responsibility we have for others in society to the responsibility we have to the society."

­p;Dan Treadaway

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