Tim Cook grew up in Robertsdale, Ala., a small town near the Gulf of Mexico where life revolved around church, the Golden Bears high school football team and community festivals.
It was a conservative, quiet place where the only headline-making events were the occasional hurricanes. But as idyllic as small-town life might have seemed, Cook also witnessed racism first-hand, and on one occasion saw a cross-burning at the home of a nearby family, an event that changed his life.
“This image was permanently imprinted in my brain,” Cook said. “For me, the cross-burning was a symbol of ignorance, of hatred, and a fear of anyone different than the majority.”
Cook returned to this theme today, in a moving essay in Bloomberg Businessweek in which he declared, “I’m proud to be gay.” He said he’s a private person from humble roots who doesn’t like to draw attention to himself. But he decided to set aside his desire for privacy to access the challenge of one of his heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King, who asked, “What are you doing for others?”
“I don’t consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others,” Cook wrote. “So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.”
While Cook, 53, never hid his sexual orientation, today’s announcement makes him one of the most prominent openly gay figures in America. And as the leader of the world’s most valuable company, the Alabama native has increasingly started to use his visibility to become more vocal on human rights issues.
Earlier this week, during the ceremony inducting him into the Alabama Academy of Honor, Cook criticized the state for failing to protect people who face discrimination because of their sexual orientation.
“As a state we took too long to take steps toward equality and once we began, our progress was too slow,” said Cook, delivering his remarks in a chamber where the state voted to secede from the Union in 1861. “Under the law, citizens of Alabama can still be fired based on their sexual orientation. We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it, and we can create a different future.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.