Cliff Cockerham helps
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.
keep King's dream alive
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
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."
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