Biden Fed Pick Says She Led College Protest for Which There Is No Evidence

Lisa Cook claims she held Spelman College officials in a room until they voted to divest from South Africa

Lisa Cook during a Senate Banking Committee confirmation hearing. / Getty Images
February 3, 2022

President Joe Biden's pick for governor of the Federal Reserve says she led an effort in the 1980s to hold school officials at her alma mater captive until they voted to divest from South Africa. But news accounts from the era raise questions about the claim.

Lisa Cook, an economics professor at Michigan State University, said in a recent interview she led a group of protestors at Spelman College, a predominantly black women's university in Atlanta, to force the school's trustees to divest from South Africa over Apartheid. Cook said she and the activists "locked up" the trustees until they voted for divestment, and that the incident received coverage by the New York Times. Cook, who graduated from Spelman in 1986, made a similar claim in 2013.

Spelman's board of trustees voted on April 27, 1986, to divest shares of South African companies, but there is no record of students detaining officials before the vote. At the time, the New York Times and other outlets reported that trustees voted for divestment a day after then-Atlanta mayor Andrew Young encouraged historically black colleges in the region to do so. A search of Times articles through the paper's "Timesmachine" archive returns no articles mentioning the incident Cook described.

Cook's story about Spelman trustees does match an incident that occurred in 1976, when Cook was around 12 years old. The New York Times reported at the time that Spelman students locked up 14 trustees for 26 hours to pressure them to choose a black woman as the school's president.

Cook's account of her activist record is reminiscent of Biden saying he was arrested at a civil rights protest in the 1960s. The Washington Post fact-checker found no evidence from contemporaneous newspaper accounts to back up Biden's claim. Similarly, news reports about the divestment debate at Spelman appear to contradict Cook's account of her time at the private college.

A historical review of the divestment debate at Spelman also contradicts Cook's claim of aggressive protest tactics at the school. According to the review, Spelman students "rarely used overt activism" to force divestment. Instead, student-activists relied on support from Spelman alumni and interviews with students from South Africa who supported divestment.

Cook did not respond to multiple requests for evidence to support her claims. The Washington Free Beacon asked her to clarify her statements in case she misspoke about events that occurred 35 years ago.

After publication of this article, a White House spokeswoman reaffirmed that Cook "participated in protests at Spelman urging divestment." The White House also provided two contemporary news clippings of the protests, one from the Associated Press and another from the Atlanta Constitution, neither of which makes any mention of locking up trustees.

Cook faces a difficult confirmation process for the Fed position. Republicans grilled her at a Senate Banking Committee confirmation hearing about her academic career and her position on race issues. Republicans have expressed concern that Cook and two other Federal Reserve nominees are looking to use the influential post to advance left-wing policies on race and climate change. Cook's defenders have accused Republicans and conservative media of being the target of a racist smear campaign.

Update 6:45 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from the White House.