Anthony Cook

Anthony Cook, a Georgetown University law professor, sits for a portrait Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Anthony Cook recalls his mother’s scream when the family’s television announced that civil rights leader Martin Luther King had been assassinated.

She fell to the floor, crying.

It was 1968 and Cook was just 7 years old, growing up in Magnolia, Mississippi. It was a small, conservative Christian, majority black town where the typical home had three photos on the wall — Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

“My mom, like so many in the community, felt such a sense of hope in him,” Cook said of King. “When he was lost, it was devastating.”

Cook will give Montana State University’s speech to mark Martin Luther King Day at 7 p.m. Thursday night in the Strand Union Building. It is free and open to the public.

Though his parents, a maid and machine operator, never got beyond the eighth and third grades, Cook became a voracious reader of his family’s encyclopedias. He grew into a strong student and earned a bachelor’s degree at Princeton University and a law degree from Yale. Today at 59, he is a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

King’s beliefs about love, justice and power are still “extraordinarily relevant today,” Cook said. Social movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, LGBT and the environmental movement have all been nonviolent and sought to change the way people think, he said.

“Every kid has to know the work is never done and you will be able to contribute to the historic march for democracy, for equality,” Cook said. “This is a process and the baton is being passed from one generation to another.”

King believed in loving your fellow man and finding “the whisper of God” even in your enemy, Cook said. “That was at the core of his nonviolence, a commitment to the belief that God was in everyone.”

Cook said one key to understanding King is that after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed by Congress, he didn’t pat himself on the back or say, “Good enough.” Instead King headed to Chicago to demonstrate against racial discrimination in housing — which showed the world that violent racism was a problem in the North as well as the South.

At the time of his death, King had a disapproval rating in polls of nearly 75%, Cook said. He’d been abandoned by many blacks and angered whites with his critiques of the Vietnam War and wealth inequality in America. Taking on the three evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism took great courage, Cook said.

Today, “we are in a struggle to redefine King’s legacy,” which was been “extraordinarily sanitized,” Cook said. He argued that the conservative movement co-opted King so he would not appear revolutionary.

Cook cited President Ronald Reagan signing the King holiday into law in 1983, while “doing everything in his power to undermine the legacy of the civil rights movement” and building on Richard Nixon’s efforts to revamp the Republican Party to appeal to white Southern Dixiecrats.

In addition to teaching law, Cook has been working for several years on a project to build an inclusive community in Washington, D.C., called GateBridge. So far they’ve secured land where they hope to build 150 homes for people of different income levels, races and cultures. He envisions it serving as an incubator for social change where residents will volunteer several hours a month.

“This generation has to think more seriously about how the ethic of love can be integrated,” Cook said. “Love is still the answer. King was absolutely right about that.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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