A year ago, UNC Charlotte students met in the Student Union rotunda, carrying signs that protested president’s travel ban. Muslims, Latinos, blacks, whites, female, male, gay and straight, all united, and among them, one white, middle-aged man stood out, as he made his way into the center of the crowd.
With all eyes on him, Dr. John Cox removed his jacket, revealing his T-shirt that read “Refugees welcome.” Cheers and clapping filled the building, many of which belonged to his students.
One of those students was Casey Aldridge.
“Dr. Cox does a good job supporting students by showing up and most importantly, by recognizing and deferring to student leadership,” he said. “He knows how to show real solidarity, not just lip service.”
Cox’s interest in social justice stems from his childhood. Growing up just a few blocks from where the Greensboro sit-ins took place in 1960s, he was actively aware of racism.
“I was fortunate that my folks really educated us to be vigilant and sensitive and knowledgeable, but also to be a force against racism,” he said.
However, his interest piqued at Appalachian State University, where he took classes about Latin America and the Holocaust and wrote as the opinion editor of the student newspaper. After graduation, he took a break from schooling, worked as a labor organizer and got involved in human rights issue and an anti-war movement. In the late 90s, Cox decided to attend graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill. Following graduation, Cox founded and directed the Genocide and Human Rights Center at the Florida Gulf Coast University. He was there for five years when he heard of an opening at UNC Charlotte. When offered that position, he didn’t hesitate.
“I accepted within like one minute,” he said. “When you’re offered a job as a professor, you’re suppose to kind of delay and negotiate … but I was very happy to come back out here cause I’ve spent most of my life in North Carolina … this is really my home.”
He’s published two books while working as the Director of the Center of Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights at the university. In February 2016, he published “To Kill a People: Genocide in the Twentieth Century,” one of the only small, concise books that overviews holocaust and genocide. He was inspired to write a book that covered the history in a broader context.
“Even still today in 2018, the holocaust is often taught as if it came out of nowhere and is a complete aberration in human history,” Cox said. “When in fact, it was really the culmination or it was the product of all sorts of terrible trends in European and in Western history. That is, Hitler and the Nazis didn’t have to invent anything, whether antisemitism, racism, even the conception of trying to kill a people because of who they are.”
His book took about three years to write.
“[My writing process is] probably similar to my students’ processes of writing their papers, which is that I work better when I have 12 hours before deadline. It is kind of ironic,” he said, jokingly.
Chapter by chapter, he received feedback from other experts in the field. One of his graduate professors at UNC Chapel Hill, Chris Browning, read the book.
“John is an example of someone who has managed to combine scholarship in the form of publishing several books, teaching and dedicated civic engagement and activism that utilizes his historical knowledge,” Browning said.
Even with help from others, though, Cox jokes that the book is not perfect.
“You know what, still a typo will slip through no matter what,” he said. “I tell my students, I really do, you have to proofread everything ten or 15 times.”
Cox’s keeps a sense of humor despite teaching courses on heavy topics. He says what keeps him going is his study of resistance.
“I see resistance and rebellion,” he said. “I see people in small and large ways asserting their dignity. I see other people extending solidarity to oppressed people … I don’t think anyone is immune and definitely no society is immune from being lured into mass violence and support for mass violence … Fortunately, there’s never been a regime that ever came to resemble George Orwell’s “1984” where independent thought and solidarity and resistances were completely snuffed out.”
And what keeps him happy is Carolina basketball and Barcelona soccer. He also enjoys reading, working out, traveling and music. His newest hobby, though, is hanging out with his stepkids. Cox said “I do” a few months ago to a professor he met while she was teaching at UNC Charlotte.
Both are involved in immigrant and refugee rights in Charlotte. Their most recent project is with Queen’s University’s new social justice center. Cox also works at the Latin American Coalition, where he provides testimony for people at risk of deportation. He’s also been involved at the International House. On a recent visit there, he ran into four of his previous students. He says surprise interactions with alumni like those students are some of his most gratifying experiences as a professor.
“Those are the kind of things that sustain all of us professors,” he said. “There are days when all of us professors and instructors come out of a class and feel slightly down, we’re like ‘man half the class was zoned out’ … but I just always see evidence that I’m reaching people and I’m learning from my students too.”
Cox plans to stay at UNC Charlotte until his retirement. What keeps him here is the people, but also the city. It’s not one that he’s always gravitated toward, but he has come to love it.
“I had an image of Charlotte as a big city of bankers and yuppies,” he said. “But fortunately in the last 20 years or so I guess, Charlotte really has become more diverse.”
Currently, he’s working on another project, co-editing a book with historian Adam Jones called “The Routledge Handbook of Genocide Studies” that will publish in either 2019 or 2020.