Larry Cox, former executive director of Amnesty International USA and esteemed human rights activist, opened the “Engaging Human Rights” Povolny Lecture Series on Tuesday, Oct. 4 with a talk titled “Making ‘Hope and History Rhyme’: Moving Forward in the Global Fight for Freedom and Dignity.”
Cox opened his speech in the Wriston Auditorium with an excerpt from “The Cure of Troy” by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney to explain that the tidal waves of justice can rise up so that hope and history rhyme. He acknowledged the success of the nonviolent protests in Egypt and urged us to reexamine our own democracy before pressing democratic ideals elsewhere in the world.
Cox also admitted that he could not “remember a moment in [his] lifetime when it has been more difficult to be optimistic about the advance of human rights…for this has been one of the worst decades for human rights.”
However, he continued to speak of his awe of individuals all over the world who have given their lives in every sense of the word, and sometimes in the worst sense — that is, dying.
Before his position at AIUSA, Cox served as executive director of the Rainforest Foundation and as senior program officer for the Ford Foundation’s human rights unit, where he championed for the rights of indigenous people in the Amazon and promoted international justice, respectively.
Cox revealed that his interest in human rights began at a very young age when he determined that there was something unjust in how his single mother faced enormous challenges to support her poor family, despite the fact that she worked extremely long hours. Not long after this realization, it was the inspiration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that eventually persuaded him to devote his life to advancing human rights.
“I got very involved, as young people do, in wanting to create a better and different world where injustices weren’t the case for my mother and for everybody else,” said Cox.
A graduate of Mount Union College, a private, liberal arts college similar to Lawrence University in its small size and academic repute, Cox came of age in the turbulent times of the sixties when young people were risking their lives to bring about change.
“Students in particular have always been at the forefront of every successful struggle to remove an injustice or evil,” said Cox. “There’s no power like the power of people determined to stand up for each other.”
In 1977, Cox began to work towards his proudest achievement to date — abolishing the death penalty. At the time, only 16 nations in the world had abolished the death penalty. Today, over two-thirds of the world’s nations have abolished it and one nation is added to the list almost every year. Cox recently spoke at the funeral of Troy Davis, a Georgia man sentenced to the death penalty after a controversial murder trial.
Cox concluded his talk by urging the audience to get involved, stating a phrase common to Amnesty International: “We don’t expect you to do everything, we just expect you to do something.”
Alexander Wilde, a 1962 Lawrence graduate, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and distinguished visiting Scarff professor, hopes that “students will find their own entry point into the human rights world one day because human rights cuts across all disciplines.”
As one of the organizers of the “Engaging Human Rights” lecture series, Wilde wanted to see if he could organize a host of activities in a short period of time highlighting a particular issue. He commented on the “incredibly fruitful” collaboration with Professor of Government and Edwin & Ruth West Professor of Economics and Social Science Claudena Skran and the help of numerous people, including Provost and Dean of the Faculty David Burrows and the members of the Board of Trustees.
“Cox’s talk gave me hope in the new leaders of our generation to generate a positive change,” said sophomore Maggie Brickner.
Senior Neel Patel, the president of Lawrence’s chapter of Amnesty International, agreed that Cox’s passion and call to action was inspiring, but “thought it was perhaps a bit too one-sided with a leftist bias, and that the way Cox said it could have turned off people in the center or the right.”
Cox noted his commitment to this stirring belief: “Young people can take something that seems hopeless, but if you keep at it, you can completely change the world.”
After pausing for a moment, he added, “For the better.”