In Memoriam: Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. (1937-2005)
We lost Johnnie Cochran recently. America lost a good man. Education lost a friend. Black Issues In Higher Education lost a friend. I personally lost a friend.
Johnnie was so much more than the celebrity his legal pursuits and victories portrayed him to be. Make no mistake — he knew the importance of drama and poignancy in conveying a message — as evidenced in his most famous quote: “If it does not fit, you must acquit.” But he also knew that words — just words — could not stand alone. A quality defense had to be comprehensive, polished and effectively presented.
The great-grandson of slaves, Johnnie was born in Shreveport, La. At the age of 12, his family moved to Los Angeles, where he was one of the first Black students to integrate the city schools. It was during these formative years that he came to know the work of Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney for the NAACP in the Brown v. Board of Education legal proceedings before the U.S. Supreme Court. He writes in his 2003 book, A Lawyer’s Life, that this knowledge of America’s foremost Black attorney of the time and his hunger for education became his inspiration for pursuing a legal career.
Johnnie’s personal influence on the lives of people was immeasurable and went far beyond those he represented in the courtroom. He studied at the University of California at Los Angeles and Loyola Law School and was a mentor to many Black men and women who followed in his footsteps. His position as both a role model and friend has been cited by many as the inspiration they needed to complete their studies and enter their respective career fields, be it as a lawyer, doctor, engineer or another profession.
But Johnnie never forgot his Southern roots, and the years that followed would see him supporting people of color and education in diverse ways. Though not an alumnus, Johnnie was a friend of historically Black colleges and universities because he recognized the unique role these institutions play in the American education enterprise. Among others, he was a strong supporter of Alabama A&M University, my alma mater. His support for HBCUs was educational, financial and spiritual, because he knew all three could lead to positive results.
In the courtroom, long before his representation of high-profile clients, Johnnie became identified for his zeal and the presence he commanded when he stepped before the bench. He took cases rejected by others, often standing up for the wrongfully accused and the unfairly treated, characteristics that made his work more difficult — but all the more rewarding when he was successful.
One can most likely count on one hand the number of individuals who have appeared on the covers of Black Issues In Higher Education more than once. Johnnie was one of those persons having sat for interviews on two occasions for issues in 1995 and 1996. In both interviews, the candid and loquacious attorney offered some interesting perspectives on his life, his views and the importance of education and knowledge. Here are just a few Johnnie Cochran pearls:
“I’m just a lawyer who loves what he’s doing. I’m somebody who is committed to my community. I try to put my money where my mouth is. I don’t just talk about scholarships. I set up a scholarship for African-American males at my school, UCLA.”
“… hard work, preparation and education prepare you for opportunities that will ultimately come, even in a racist society.”
“When they (opportunities) come, just be prepared. That’s why education is such a key and why knowledge is power. Information is power. It’s not power to dominate others, but it’s power to control your own destiny.”
I stated earlier that Johnnie was a friend of Black Issues, a good enough friend to call this desk when he saw something of relevance that he thought the magazine might want to cover. In turn, his phone would also be answered when Black Issues wanted his view or position on a matter of importance to our readers. Johnnie had agreed to serve as a keynote presenter for the inaugural Black Issues’ “Benchmarks & Barriers for People of Color in Higher Education” conference last year, only to have health issues force him to step aside. His absence was our loss.
Johnnie Cochran was a voice that needed to be heard and for the 67 years that he was with us, he made sure the underserved and under-represented had a voice. Sometimes it was him speaking for them. Other times, it was their voice urged on and supported by him.
That voice has been stilled and it will be missed.
— William E. Cox is the president of Cox, Matthews and Associates, publisher of Black Issues In Higher Education.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com