Reverend Benjamin Elton Cox Sr. was born on June 19, 1931, in Whiteville, Tennessee, the seventh of sixteen children. He first participated in civil rights demonstrations at the age of fifteen, protesting outside of a A&W Root Beer drive-in restaurant in Kankakee, Illinois. At the age of sixteen, Cox served as national field secretary for the NAACP, organizing youth chapters.
Although Cox dropped out of high school to help his family financially by shining shoes, in 1950 he was able to graduate from Joliet Township High School, an integrated school in Joliet, Illinois. Cox then attended Livingstone College in Salisbury, NC, and graduated in 1954 with a major in sociology and a minor in history. After college, he attended Hood Seminary in Salisbury, but he finished his theological studies in 1957 at the Howard University School of Religion.
Cox moved to High Point, North Carolina, to become pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church, and quickly became active in the community by serving on the High Point School Desegregation Committee in 1959. After the Greensboro Four’s sit-in at Woolworth’s in 1960, he organized a group of local high school students to participate in the Greensboro demonstrations. In 1961, Cox founded the first Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter in High Point and was hired as the North Carolina Field Secretary. Following a meeting with CORE director James farmer, Cox went to Washington, D.C., for training in nonviolent response to harassment and mistreatment.
Cox was one of the thirteen original Freedom Riders in May 1961 and was involved in the Freedom Highways workshop held at Bennett College in July 1962.
In December 1961, Cox went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and was arrested while leading a peaceful demonstration; in the resulting case, Cox v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court declared this use of the state's "breach of peace" law unconstitutional. Cox was also instrumental in getting many North Carolina public establishments to integrate, notably McDonald’s franchises. Cox’s involvement with the civil rights movement resulted in seventeen arrests and multiple death threats. He resigned from CORE in 1965 when black power advocates came to dominate the organization, and later moved to Jackson, Tennessee.