The Heart of an Activist

November 23, 2011

The Heart of an Activist

Larry Cox came to Amnesty International USA five years ago with the goal of expanding the human rights movement. By the end of his tenure as executive director, Cox stood on the front lines of AIUSA's unprecedented global campaign to stop one man's execution-and to mobilize international support for the cause of death penalty abolition.


Laura Jamison

Laura Jamison is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Rolling Stone.

Larry Cox meets the Dalai Lama at a May 4 AIUSA event honoring the 14th Dalai Lama with the Shine a Light on Human Rights Award, in recognition of his lifelong commitment to social justice and human rights in Long Beach, Calif.

In the last, dark hour of September 21, 2011, Amnesty International USA Executive Director Larry Cox stood outside the Georgia Diagnostic Prison in Jackson, Ga., under the harsh glare of a reporter's video-camera lights. Haggard and visibly disturbed, Cox spoke in a voice thick with emotion about what had just occurred inside the prison walls: the execution of Troy Anthony Davis. Yet despite the collective despair and outrage of that moment, Cox spoke with a conviction reinforced by four decades of work as a death penalty abolitionist. "The fight for human rights is very, very long and hard, and every day we lose people," Cox began. "I think Troy Davis will become the symbol of a new stage in the abolitionist movement, and it will be a successful stage. Today I leave here believing that in honor of Troy's spirit we will prevail. I'm sure of it."

When Cox left his post in late September, after five years with the organization, his legacy included a string of impressive accomplishments. But perhaps none better exemplifies what he set out to accomplish during his tenure at AIUSA than the ground breaking international anti-death penalty campaign with the emblematic case of Troy Davis at its center.

AIUSA began working on Davis' behalf in 2006, after he'd already spent nearly half his life behind bars for the 1989 shooting death of Savannah, Ga., policeman Mark MacPhail. At that time, Davis and the facts of his case-including compelling evidence to the general public. Over the next four years, AIUSA undertook intensive grassroots organizing, media work and coalition-building at the state and national levels [see story, page 8], with remarkable results: Davis was granted three stays of execution over the course of two years; the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 ordered a federal court in Georgia to grant Davis a new evidentiary hearing (the first to be ordered by the court in 50 years); and a kaleidoscopic group of prominent supporters, including former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former FBI Director William Sessions, made public appeals to stop the execution from proceeding. As Davis' final execution date approached, petitions with 1 million signatures in support of clemency were delivered, and thousands of people around the world joined protests and vigils organized by AI.

While the fight for Davis' life was ultimately lost, the unprecedented AIUSA-led campaign to stop the execution thrust the issue of America's death penalty laws onto the global stage like never before. "When we come together, using every asset the organization has in a unified way, we have a power that goes beyond anything we could have imagined," Cox said, reflecting on the campaign two weeks after the execution. "That was the vision I had when I came-it's why I came five and a half years ago."

The remarkable show of support for Davis was not the result of a perfect storm; it was the result of years of strategic, innovative campaigning and activism. AIUSA strengthened its high-level advocacy through grassroots mobilization and painstaking coalition building with national organizations, such as the NAACP, state abolition groups like the Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and local African American churches. From the outset, Cox's vision was that this multifaceted strategy, with its emphasis on building a diverse grassroots foundation, would become a cornerstone of every AIUSA campaign. "We recognized that we had this tremendous asset: committed, skilled and energetic activists around the country," Cox said, pointing out that the membership base is what sets AI apart from other human rights organizations. He worked not just to tap that resource but to bolster it, paying particular attention to youth.

"Larry pushed the organization to be its best at all times-to engage more activists, generate more creativity and respond with more agility," says AIUSA Board Chair Carole Nagengast. "He put campaigning front and center. His focus was to get people on the streets, to build a movement. And he is a better motivator than anyone else I've ever met. If you hear him speak, you believe him. You believe he'll be out there on the streets with you-and he is."

In some ways, Cox had spent much of his life honing the model of activism he brought to AIUSA. As a young man, he used unconventional tactics in his anti-Viet Nam War efforts-even allowing himself to be drafted into the army in order to organize resistance from within. He joined the fledgling AIUSA as its first press officer in 1976, a time when nine dedicated staffers worked out of a tiny three-room office on Manhattan's Upper West Side that they had furnished with discarded items found on the street. Nearly a decade later, in 1985, he moved to London to serve as the deputy secretary general at AI's International Secretariat for 5 years. Cox then left AI to work for 16 years on the forefront of the emerging movement for economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR), first with the Rainforest Foundation and then as a senior program officer in the human rights division of the Ford Foundation. "He was not just an important funder," recalls Catherine Albisa, executive director of the National Economic Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), who met Cox when they were both working at Ford. "He was an important thinker in the field."

Cox's expertise in ESCR was put to good use when he returned to AIUSA as executive director in 2006. "We made the decision [to work to advance ESCR] 10 years ago," says AIUSA Chief Operating Officer Curt Goering, another AIUSA veteran. "But it wasn't until Larry came that we were able to address it." Critically, Cox brought with him decades of experience applying a human rights framework to issues that had not traditionally been considered as such, including the death penalty and environmental destruction. Under his leadership AIUSA began to reframe poverty as a human rights issue-the focus of AI's global, multi-year Demand Dignity campaign-beginning with a damning report on the crisis of maternal mortality in the United States. The 2010 report and 2011 update, conducted by AIUSA's research team, highlighted U.S. maternal death rates, which far surpassed those of 49 other countries, and the stark racial and socioeconomic disparities that have persisted for decades-reflecting various barriers preventing women from accessing quality maternal care.

With Cox at the helm, the efforts of AIUSA's seasoned legislative advocacy team were amplified by a dynamic coalition of health-care, advocacy, and women's rights groups-and by some unconventional grassroots tactics. AIUSA activists unveiled a "maternal death clock" billboard in New York City's Times Square, for example, just as world leaders were convening at the United Nations to evaluate progress on the U.N. Millennium Development Goals-a move that prompted The New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman to devote an entire column to the maternal mortality report. AIUSA also staged a speaking tour across the United States, briefed congressional supporters and staffers, and, as always, mobilized activists to put pressure on elected officials. As a result, just months after the report was published, legislators in the 111th Congress introduced multiple bills to prevent maternal deaths here and abroad.

Cox's deep commitment to exposing domestic human rights abuses also contributed to the success of AI's 2007 Maze of Injustice report, which spotlighted the complex jurisdictional problems that have fueled epidemic rates of sexual violence against Native American and Alaska Native women in the United States. The report, part of AI's Stop Violence Against Women campaign not only focused significant national attention on an issue that tribal leaders and Native advocates had been championing for years, it catalyzed major systemic reforms. After three years of sustained AIUSA lobbying to advance the reforms recommended in the report and a groundswell of grassroots support, AIUSA saw passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, legislation developed in close collaboration with AIUSA and its Native American and Alaska Native allies that protects Native women from rape and sexual violence by improving public safety and justice services in Indian Country. AIUSA also successfully lobbied for $6 million in additional funding for Department of Justice efforts to bolster Indian Country prosecution efforts, as well as multi-million-dollar funding increases to Indian Health Services.

Larry Cox (right) and NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous (left) speak to reporters following a June 2010 hearing for Troy Davis in Savannah, Ga.

Although the fight for Troy Davis was lost, the exceptional international campaign to save his life may well mark a turning point in the national-and perhaps international-struggle to end executions. Larry Cox led the way: under his leadership, AIUSA's state-by-state coalition strategy helped achieve abolition of the death penalty in two states, New Jersey (2007) and New Mexico (2009), and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed an abolition bill into law in March. AIUSA campaigners have been making a major push in four additional states that are considering abolition legislation in the 2012 sessions.

"I think Larry's contribution hasn't just been to AIUSA - really, it has been to the larger movement for human rights," said Gouri Sadhwani, deputy executive director for Organizing, Membership and Campaigns. "I don't think we'll know the impact he's had for years to come, because his vision has transformed the way all of us who work in this field approach human rights issues." Characteristically, Cox deflects credit for AIUSA's enormous achievements over the last five years. "The most gratifying thing working with Amnesty has been seeing the activists across the country mobilized. Whenever I'd get discouraged or frustrated, I'd go on the road, and that's what kept me going-they're focused, they want to make a better world. And they in turn created a better Amnesty."