Joe Cook, outspoken defender of civil liberties for friend and foe alike from one end of the state to the other, announced that he would retire later this year in June as Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana.
"I continue to feel a high level of passion for the core issues that first attracted me as a member 36 years ago, later as a volunteer for four years, then as a staff member for 17 years, 13 of those here in Louisiana," said Joe Cook in reflecting on his upcoming retirement. "After being on the front lines and on call seven days a week, the time has come to hang up the ACLU spurs. I now want to devote more time to the pleasures of family, friends, regular exercise and try my hand at organic gardening."
Under Cook's leadership, the 50-year-old non-profit has grown substantially in size and programs, while he persisted in helping to build a strong financial foundation. In 1994, the agency consisted of the executive director and an office administrator, who operated on a shoestring budget. Today, it has four full-time employees, with the addition of a staff attorney and a development/public education associate, along with a contract lobbyist and funding for a racial justice investigator. Furthermore, the statewide membership has doubled from 1000 to 2000.
After Katrina hit and flooded the agency's office building in downtown New Orleans, Cook managed to keep the staff together from afar, rescued essential files up nine flights of stairs with volunteer and staff help, and setup a temporary office in Baton Rouge for three months. Upon returning to New Orleans in mid-December of 2005, he helped rebuild the operation and move it to a new and better location.
Former President of the Board and current General Counsel Al Shapiro of Baton Rouge observed, "Joe Cook has been a tremendous asset to our organization, a great leader who has been vigorous in the defense of the civil liberties of citizens from every segment of society. We will miss him a great deal and wish him the best of luck in future endeavors."
The ACLU exists because the Bill of Rights is not self-enforcing. It needs a watchdog to protect the people from the tyranny of a government that takes away our freedom and enforces orthodoxy. That is why over 10,000 people from across the state have sent in complaints to the ACLU during Cook's tenure. Individuals have written about issues of religious liberty, free speech, racial profiling and police abuse, women's rights; gay rights, prisoners' rights, students' rights, voting rights, and the death penalty, among others.
"Of the some 100 cases litigated over the past 13 years, all have been notable and most have been won, with a few standouts," said Cook. "Courageous parents and students came forward shortly after my arrival in 1994 to complain about the Tangipahoa Parish School Board's promotion of religion with a Biblical creationism disclaimer, and they haven't let up since then. A Cross section of other cases come to mind: the refusal of "Fat Boys Retreat" to seat blacks; the drug testing or "clean urine loyalty oath" for public officials pushed by Governor Foster; a "dog cage" holding cell used by the Abbeville police department; intellectual freedom at risk for school librarians in Ouachita and St. Tammany parishes; and Orleans Parish Prison inmates abandoned and abused after Katrina and the flood."
"One of the most enjoyable parts of the job has been the association with Board members, staff, cooperating attorneys, clients, volunteers, and our members, who have so generously given funds for our programs," Cook concluded. "I could not have fulfilled my life's dream of working everyday in sync with my deepest values without these folks, so I salute them and say thanks for a great ride."