In 1970, crosstown busing came to Richmond, Virginia. Richard Cohen, then only a teenager, persuaded his parents to let him attend an integrated public school instead of private school. He ended up leaving high school a year early to begin college at Columbia University, where he studied philosophy.
Cohen, now the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, worked in private law for seven years before starting at the SPLC as its legal director. He’s worked at the organization for more than half of his life. I spoke to Cohen recently about his career trajectory and how watching the 1968 Democratic National Convention as a 13-year-old changed him. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Lola Fadulu: Could you tell me about your parents and their jobs?
Richard Cohen: My father ran an interior-decorating firm, and my mother was a legal secretary. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. I was born about seven months after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and I went to public schools in Richmond.
In 1970, the beginning of my sophomore year in high school, massive crosstown busing came to Richmond. They had been operating basically under a freedom-of-choice or a districting plan, but it was proving inadequate to desegregate the schools, and a very famous judge ordered crosstown busing. Now, there were a lot of people in the white community who abandoned the public schools. They moved out of the city or put their kids in private schools. My parents were really pushing me to go to a private school, and I just basically said no, and made a couple of speeches in that day to Jewish groups about the importance of staying with the public schools. Sometimes I wonder, when I look back on it, whether that was out of principle or whether it was a product of youthful belligerence. Then I left high school a year early, and then went off to college, and then into law school back in Virginia.