Fadulu: Why did your parents want you to go to private school?
Cohen: I don’t think my parents were racist people. I just think they thought, “Gosh, Richard’s a smart kid. The situation in the public schools seems uncertain, and we want to make sure he gets the best education he can. And we just don’t know what’s going on in the public schools, because of a lot of change and disruption.” So I think those were the basic reasons. I didn’t think of it as a particularly racist thing, although I just think they were concerned about how the school system was working. In the end, we argued and they relented, and I’m so glad they did.
Fadulu: How was public school for you?
Cohen: My school before that had been integrated, but had been predominantly white. My public school, by the time I was in my junior year, was probably predominantly black.
Fadulu: What was it like for you to be in the minority, as a white student?
Cohen: I don’t know if I thought about it so much as a young person. These were my classmates. These were people I knew. These were people who I smoked cigarettes in the back of the school with and things like that. So I don’t want to describe it as kind of nirvana or anything like that, but it was a different experience than I think some people had.
You know, we’re at the 50th anniversary this month of the 1968 Democratic convention. That convention was, I think, in some sense a coming-of-age moment for me. That was the convention in Chicago. Dr. King had been killed. Robert Kennedy had been killed, and the 1968 convention was a very tumultuous time. Mayor Daley is cursing at speakers from the front row of the convention. The police are rioting in the streets.
In that entire time, there were two people who stood out at the convention as kind of voices of sanity: A guy named Jesse Unruh, who was the head of the California delegation, and the other person, of course, was Julian Bond. Julian was, I think, 28 years old at the time, but he spoke with such moral force that at the convention, someone placed his name into nomination for the vice presidency of the United States. It was largely a symbolic act, because Julian was too young to be the vice president of the United States. But the nomination, of course, though symbolic, was a reflection of Julian’s stature. Three years after that, Julian helped to found the Southern Poverty Law Center. When I came here in 1986, he became a great friend. I don’t find it completely coincidental that I’m here.
That was a really important moment for me. It was really the first time I had watched a political convention, and the first time that I think I paid a lot of attention to and was excited about politics and civil rights and issues of fairness.
Fadulu: How old were you at that time?
Cohen: I went to college at Columbia, and then I came back to Virginia to go to law school. I think my law-school tuition was $1,000 a year as an in-state student, which was one of the world’s most incredible deals. And I practiced law for about seven years in Washington, D.C., with a very famous civil-rights lawyer, although some people might think that we were on the wrong side of certain cases. His name was Charles Morgan. He actually represented Julian when the Georgia legislature refused to seat Julian because of his stance against the Vietnam War. He represented Muhammad Ali in the lower courts when Ali was being prosecuted for so-called draft evasion. He argued a lot of early civil-rights cases, such as Reynolds v. Sims, a case well known for establishing the principle of “one man, one vote.”