I often refer to Dr. Williiam E. Cox as the quintessential “race man.”
He, like so many others from his era, believed that they had a moral imperative and a duty to help improve the plight and social mobility of Black Americans through education.
These Black southerners set out to transform the nation, and in doing so, provided countless opportunities for the next wave of African Americans.
I am deeply grateful for their sacrifice.
Bill’s actions were aligned with his words. In an uncompromising effort to showcase the diversity of academia, he and Frank L. Matthews gave the nation a tremendous blessing when they founded Black Issues In Higher Education, renamed Diverse: Issues In Higher Education in 2005.
This special tribute edition remembers and celebrates the life of Dr. William E. Cox and his monumental contributions to the field of higher education and beyond. No tribute could sufficiently convey our deep appreciation and admiration for Bill and the ways in which he impacted the higher education landscape, but we have tried to capture the spirit of his genius, creativity, and strong work ethic, by spotlighting the voices of those who knew him closely or admired him from afar.
During my nearly 20-year affiliation with Diverse, I have encountered countless scholars who are indebted to Bill and Frank for having the courage, vision, and fortitude to create Black Issues In Higher Education. They credit the publication with helping them to find their first job in academe; they are grateful that we published their first article; and they found the thought-provoking articles and commentaries to prove useful as they pursued their own scholarly endeavors.
At a time when diversity and affirmative action were under serious assault, Bill was an early crusader. As a businessman, he helped colleges and universities understand why it was not only important, but imperative that they invest in Black-owned media publications. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, we have seen the waning of these publications. They have virtually disappeared. But thanks to Bill’s planning and his entrepreneurial skills, Diverse has not only survived, but it has prospered.
Bill was tough. He was a task master who coveted excellence. Former editors will remember the many phone calls that we received from Bill summoning us to his office. Always nervous, I would grab a pen and notepad and dash upstairs, readying myself for a verbal spanking.
But no such thing ever occurred. Bill was gracious and always admiring of my work, and our weekly conversations (which became bonding time) provided me with a deep dive into his life as a Black southerner who defied the odds by building a successful enterprise that he was determined to grow.
“I just want to tell you, you’re doing a good job, Jamal,” Bill would often quip. “I’m counting on you to keep the business going.”
By then, Bill and Frank had already turned the day-to-day reins of the publication over to their children — and though I was not biologically connected to him — Bill saw me as a leader who could help to transform the publication for the better. I always took that charge quite seriously.
Finally, it was Bill who gave me a greater appreciation for Sigma Pi Phi, also known as The Boulé — the African American fraternity that counts Dr. W.E.B Du Bois, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Andy Young, and Ralph Bunche among its most well-known members. Bill was a proud and devoted member of the Boulé, and he particularly appreciated the organization’s focus on education and civic engagement.
Our interests were similar. We both earned doctorates — his in educational leadership and mine in African American Studies — and he would regularly query my views on a broad range of topics, listening attentively to my every word.
Bill was also one of the best dressed individuals I had ever met. When he walked into a room, it was clear that he had come to do business. You could feel his presence even before he entered the space.
Amid the chaos of these uncertain times, I am thankful that Dr. William E. Cox passed this way and that his passion for education and his deep-abiding love for equity and inclusion continues. We are eternally grateful.
Dr. Jamal Eric Watson held many positions at Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, including senior staff writer, executive editor, editor-at-large and managing editor. He is also on the graduate faculty at Trinity Washington University, located in the nation’s capital.