Dr. James Cook: ‘When you don’t stand up to injustice, you lose a piece of your soul’

Dr. James Cook, one of five students who helped desegregate Catholic High School in Baton Rouge in the ’60s, encouraged others to do their part to stand up for what is right.

“You can’t say it’s not my child or it’s not my problem or it doesn’t affect me. You can’t pick and choose. You must ask questions because whenever you don’t stand up to injustice, you lose a piece of your soul.”

Dr. Cook was the guest speaker at an event commemorating the 50-year milestone for students who helped to desegregate Catholic high schools in Baton Rouge, held on November 13 at SULC.

He along with his brother Harold and three other African-American students desegregated the all-white Catholic High in 1965.  The other students included Dupuy Anderson, Jr., Ralph Anderson, and Lynn A. Darensbourg. They are graduates of Catholic High.

Anderson Jr. and Harold Cook also attended the event along with officials from Catholic High, St. Joseph’s Academy, and the Catholic Diocese; pastors of St. Francis Xavier, St. Paul the Apostle, and Immaculate Conception Catholic churches; presidents of the Baton Rouge Branch and Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP; and classmates, family, and friends of the honorees. It was sponsored by SULC’s Louis A. Berry Civil Rights and Justice Institute, SULC Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, and the Student Bar Association.

Cook is the director of cardiac rehabilitation at the Providence Medford Medical Clinic in Oregon. He grew up in Scotlandville and attended Southern University Lab School before going to Catholic High. He vividly recalled the day when he and the other students walked into the school, making history.

“They separated us in five different classes. As you can imagine, there was a lot of isolation. We were left alone. No one talked to us and when they did it was constant harassment and verbal assaults. There was no one who was brave enough to stand up and say stop. I always felt like we were left on our own to try to survive the best we could.”

He said they were urged to participate in the movement by his father who was a civil rights activist and by their teachers.  “We felt obligated to do so because of the overall feeling in the community that everyone needed to do their part to dispel the lies about racism,” he said.  Before the students went to the school, they were told what to expect and how to respond during a meeting led by community activists and students who had been part of public school desegregation.

Looking back, Cook, who earned his bachelor’s degree and medical degree from Tulane University, reflected on how difficult it must have been for his parents to send him and his brother into the dangerous, unknown conditions.

“I don’t know as a parent if I could have done what my parents did. They knew when we got there that there was no guarantee of our safety, and still they volunteered. So I want to commend them, the teachers, and activists who encouraged us to be prepared.”

Interim Chancellor John Pierre and SULC students say Dr. Cook’s message inspired them and they will forever be grateful for the group’s fearlessness.

“We use this opportunity to teach our students about history and advocacy,” Pierre said.  “We are better individuals because of the courageous steps taken by them, their parents, and the leaders that were part of this movement.”

“These individuals provide us with blueprints. These achievements give us the manual,” said Gilbert Bayonne, a board member of the SULC Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.  “Thank you for your courage and initiative. We hope to make you as proud as you have made us.”

“Through your individual and collective efforts, you’ve created opportunities, opened educational doors, and turned stairs into elevators,” said Krystal Wilson, editor-in-chief of the Student Bar Association Public Defender. “You’ve overcome obstacles and taught us to overcome barriers.”

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Pictured from left: Dr. James Cook, Jr.; Gilbert Bayonne, SULC Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild; Krystal Wilson, Student Bar Association; Dupuy Anderson, Jr.; Harold Cook; and Interim Chancellor John Pierre.