ROBERTSDALE â€" There are few clues that this is the home town of Apple chief executive Tim Cook, the place where he said his â€œmost improbable journeyâ€ began and where he forged the beliefs that today put him at the center of a national debate over privacy.
His name is not noted on the townâ€™s welcome signs along the main drag, Route 59. Thereâ€™s nothing in the local chamberâ€™s brochures, and the local paper rarely has anything about him. His old high school keeps a glass case celebrating former NFL running back Joe Childress, Class of 1952, but not the leader of the worldâ€™s most valuable company, Class of 1978.
Walking around the town and talking with residents, it can feel as if Cook is a forgotten favorite son.
â€œI kinda wonder about that sometimes, I really do,â€ said Rick Ousley, a former classmate who recalls Cook fondly and now runs a computer repair shop in town.
Cook never sought out attention and many here are quietly proud of him, but Ousley suspects the lack of recognition is also tied to Cookâ€™s prominent positions on sensitive social issues. Cook, who is gay, has advocated for gay rights. He once criticized Alabama for its lack of progress in a speech at the state capitol in Montgomery. He also helped fund a gay rights initiative in the Deep South.
â€œThat was offensive to a lot of people down here,â€ Ousley said. One local pastor even vowed to stop using his iPad because of the Apple leaderâ€™s views.
Now, Cook, 55, has taken another risky stand, this time on privacy. He and Apple are fighting a federal court order demanding the Silicon Valley firm help the FBI crack the passcode-locked iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists. The FBI has accused Cook of only wanting to protect Appleâ€™s brand. But Cook, in his soft Southern drawl, has repeatedly argued the FBIâ€™s request is wrong in moral terms, calling it â€œbad for America.â€
Cookâ€™s experiences growing up in Robertsdale â€" detailed by him in public speeches and recalled by others â€" are key to understanding how a once-quiet tech executive became one of the worldâ€™s most outspoken corporate leaders. Apple has long emphasized the privacy of its products, but today Cook talks about privacy not as an attribute of a device, but as a right â€" a view colored by his own history.
For Cook, it was in this tiny town midway between Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla., that a book-smart boy developed what he calls his â€œmoral sense.â€
On the surface easy-going and popular, according to former classmates, Cook seemed too aware of the injustices around him.
â€œI have to believe that growing up in Alabama, during the 1960s and witnessing what he did, especially as someone who is gay, he understood the dangers of remaining silent,â€ said Kerry Kennedy, a human-rights activist who has met Cook several times and whose father, Robert F. Kennedy, Cook considers one of his heroes.
â€œHeâ€™s not afraid to stand up when he sees something wrong,â€ she added.
Cookâ€™s chance to stand up came early, when he was in just the sixth or seventh grade.
In the early 1970s, he was riding his new 10-speed bicycle at night along a rural road just outside Robertsdale when he spotted a burning cross. He pedaled closer.
He saw Klansmen in white hoods and robes. The cross was on the property of a family he knew was black. It was almost more than he could comprehend.
Without thinking, he shouted, â€œStop!â€
The group turned toward the boy. One of them raised his hood. Cook recognized the man as a local deacon at one of the dozen churches in town, but not the one attended by Cookâ€™s family.
The man warned the boy to keep moving.
â€œThis image was permanently imprinted in my brain and it would change my life forever,â€ Cook recalled in a speech in 2013, an incident that he also has recounted to friends.
A few years later, at age 16, Cook won an essay contest sponsored by a rural electric company and, as part of the prize, met Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the segregationist who resisted the federal governmentâ€™s attempts to integrate the stateâ€™s public schools during the 1960s.
Cook shook Wallaceâ€™s hand that day, but described it as â€œa betrayal of my own beliefs,â€ he said in a speech last year. â€œIt felt wrong. Like I was selling a piece of my soul.â€
On the same trip, Cook met President Jimmy Carter at the White House. To Cook, the difference between the two men was impossible to miss â€" â€œone was right and one was wrong.â€
Another student from southern Alabama on that same trip noted just how different her reaction had been: She was a teenager happy just to fly on a plane for the first time. She wasnâ€™t thinking at all about what those two men represented.
But Cook did.
Timothy Donald Cook was born in 1960, the second of three sons to Donald and Geraldine Cook. His mom looked after the boys at home and sometimes worked at Leeâ€™s Drug, a pharmacy in town. His dad worked at the shipyards in Mobile. They lived in a brick house on a dead-end street not far from a livestock auction house. Money was tight. When Cook wrote that award-winning essay at age 16, he had to do it by hand. His family couldnâ€™t afford a new typewriter, almost $800 in todayâ€™s money.
Cook has always been private â€" he declined to comment for this story â€" and he rarely talks about his family in public.
Today, one brother works as a business analyst in North Carolina. The other lives in Daphne, 15 miles from Robertsdale. His father, 83, still lives here. His mother died last year at age 77. No obituary ran in the local paper, leaving some extended family in the dark. But many townspeople assumed it was because the Cooks worried about publicity.
The precocious nature of Cookâ€™s interest in justice appears to be woven throughout his life.
One of his earliest memories is watching Robert F. Kennedy, who opposed Wallaceâ€™s segregationist policies, on a black and white television in early 1968. Cook recalled in a talk last December that he was most struck by the â€œunique accent that seemed very strange for a Southerner to hear.â€
Later, Cook studied Kennedyâ€™s writings and speeches, such as his â€œRipple of Hopeâ€ speech about the necessity of standing up and doing the right thing.
Today, at his Apple office in Cupertino, Calif., Cook keeps two photos of Kennedy on his wall, plus a photo of Martin Luther King Jr.
Those are hardly the typical corporate suite choices.
But the lessons of Kennedy and King were not readily available to Cook in Alabama. He had to actively search out â€œwhat was right and true.â€
â€œI drew on the moral sense that Iâ€™d learned from my parents, and in church, and in my own heart, and that led me on my own journey of discovery,â€ he recalled in one speech.
He made frequent visits to the small Robertsdale library, where he found a copy of â€œTo Kill a Mockingbirdâ€ â€" published only a few years earlier â€" and devoured the story of a trial exposing the dangers of racism in a fictional Alabama town.
When author Harper Lee died last month, Cook tweeted a quote from the book: â€œThe one thing that doesnâ€™t abide by majority rule is a personâ€™s conscience.â€
Robertsdale today is a two water-tower town of about 5,200 residents. Itâ€™s doubled in size since Cook grew up here, with houses spreading across former farm fields. The town got its first Walmart Supercenter two years ago.
Back in 1977, the new store in town was a Piggly Wiggly. There was no movie theater. No bowling alley. The fall county fair was the big deal. Teens hung out on the townâ€™s tennis courts or outside Hammondâ€™s Supermarket, where they knew the owner.
Robertsdale, Alabama â€" Photo: lucianvenutian
â€œThere was nothing to do,â€ said Teresa Prochaska Huntsman, another Class of â€™78 alumnus.
School was the center of their lives. And Cook excelled there. He was in the National Honor Society and racked up academic honors. So did Huntsman, who managed to edge out Cook for the title of class valedictorian.
The pair were so driven that they worried they were not learning enough in a senior chemistry class. The teacher was a football coach who told students to just read a book or play cards, Huntsman recalled.
â€œWe were concerned that if we went to college we wouldnâ€™t be prepared,â€ she said.
They talked to a school counselor, who told them not to worry.
Cook â€" with a quick smile and the bushy hairdo popular at the time â€" was well-liked by his classmates.
â€œHe just seemed like a happy guy,â€ Huntsman said.
â€œHe probably considered himself to be a bit nerdy, but he didnâ€™t come off that way,â€ recalled Harold Richardson, another former classmate.
And the topic of whether Cook â€" or any other student â€" was gay wasnâ€™t even on the radar.
â€œIn the â€™70s, in high school, no one thought about that, especially in Alabama,â€ Richardson said.
It was like it wasnâ€™t even possible.
Growing up gay in small-town Alabama a generation ago meant knowing the value of privacy, recalled Paul Hard, 57, who was raised in tiny Demopolis, Ala. He doesnâ€™t know Cook, but imagines what he went through, because he went through it himself.
â€œYou kept your cards close to your chest,â€ he said.
Cook first publicly acknowledged he was gay in a 2014 opinion piece. He wrote that he doesnâ€™t consider himself an activist, yet felt a responsibility to help others.
It was an event that made headlines around the world. Today, Cook is still the only openly gay leader of a Fortune 500 company.
â€œI donâ€™t think itâ€™s been fully realized how big a deal it is,â€ said Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign.
But Cookâ€™s admission was not universally celebrated, illustrating the potential risk Cook faced throughout his career.
In the early 1990s, Cook worked at computer reseller Intelligent Electronics, where his boss was Mark Briggs, who today hails Cook as â€œan operational genius.â€
But Briggs also objects to Cookâ€™s view on homosexuality.
â€œThe very fact of homosexuality is abhorrent to God,â€ Briggs said. He described it a behavior that can be controlled â€" â€œexactly the same thing as alcoholism.â€
Briggs said he never knew Cook was gay when they worked together and insists it would not have mattered.
â€œHe knows I donâ€™t approve of homosexuality,â€ Briggs said. â€œHe knew it then. He knows it now. No big deal.â€
For years, Cook hid his desire to speak out.
That started to change when he arrived at Apple in 1998. Hired as a senior vice president to fix Appleâ€™s problematic supply chains, Cook believed that if he wanted to change the world, he had to do it on his own time. Not at work.
â€œSteve didnâ€™t see it that way,â€ Cook recalled of his predecessor Jobs. â€œHe was an idealist. And in that way he reminded me of how I felt as a teenager.â€
Jobs insisted they could change the world by working hard and making great products, that â€œthere is opportunity to do work that is infused with moral purpose.â€
Cook pushed this point even further when he took over Apple in 2011. He advocated for gay rights and to change laws in states such as Alabama, where employees can be fired for being gay. He criticized states with â€œreligious freedomâ€ laws that seemed to him to sanction some forms of discrimination.
Last December, shortly before the fate of a terroristâ€™s iPhone would explode onto the national scene, he accepted the Ripple of Hope award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.
In his speech, Cook talked about learning to â€œtake a stand for what is right, for what is just.â€
And when the terroristâ€™s iPhone case erupted last month, Cook returned to that â€œmoral senseâ€ he learned back in Robertsdale.
Appleâ€™s first response was a â€œLetter to Our Customers,â€ authored by Cook. He wrote that â€œit would be wrongâ€ for Apple to be forced to create a backdoor to its security system.
â€œWe feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government,â€ Cook wrote.
Tech companies such as Google and Facebook have supported Apple. Law enforcement groups and some family members of the 14 people killed in the Dec. 2 terrorist attack have lined up behind the FBI.
The Justice Department has accused Apple of focusing on â€œa perceived negative impact on its reputation.â€
Cook, however, has framed it as a difficult moral choice.
â€œSome things are hard, and some things are right, and some things are both,â€ he said last month in an ABC News interview. â€œThis is one of those things.â€
Cook still calls himself â€œa proud son of the South.â€
He returns to Alabama when he can, usually around the holidays in Robertsdale or at least down to Auburn, three hours away, where he loves to watch his alma mater play football.
Residents have been following Cook and the privacy dispute.
â€œI donâ€™t want the government looking at my iPhone,â€ former classmate Diane Middleton-Vogel said.
And many of them take pride in how far Cook has gone.
â€œWe just have a lot of respect for him,â€ said Robertsdale Mayor Charles Murphy.
Cook and Apple, he said, â€œhave changed history.â€
At the local high school, there is one sign that appears to connect Robertsdale with Cook. Every student there has a MacBook laptop. The familiar Apple logo is visible throughout the halls.
The laptops were bought a few years ago by the county school system. But last month the school board voted to move in a new direction. This fall, every student will be assigned a Lenovo Chromebook instead.
Itâ€™s nothing personal. The Chromebooks were just cheaper.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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