While paying tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his death, Cook said that the student survivors of the shooting in Parkland, Fla., the activists of the #MeToo movement and those defending Dreamers and DACA are working effectively for change.
"These heroes know that patience is an indulgence that we cannot afford," Cook said.
In 2017 and 2018, the #MeToo and Time's Up movements have gotten the attention of, and started affecting, industries from Hollywood to Wall Street. The undocumented "dreamers" protected by the DACA program and their allies have rallied support from billionaires like Cook, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. And the Parkland mass shooting survivors inspired over 800,000 Americans to march against gun violence.
An Alabama-native, Cook returned to Birmingham on Wednesday to meet students and celebrate the rollout of Apple's Swift programming curriculum across Alabama Community College branches, as well as to accept his award.
Cook noted how the world was "made better" by King's work but added that there is still much to be done to accomplish King's dream of equality.
"We're still faced with widespread poverty, inequality, discrimination, inequality of economic opportunity, inequality in our justice system," Cook said. "Too much of a child's future is still determined by a zipcode they are born in, like the availability of a quality education."
Nonetheless, Cook said, "despite all of the challenges we face" and "despite the frustration," he is hopeful because of the people leading and supporting today's most influential movements.
"They are the students of Parkland, Florida, fighting to make our schools safer. They are the citizens standing up for the Dreamers and other immigrants because they make our country stronger," Cook said. "They are the women upending the status quo with two simple words: 'Me too.' They are the people who are walking, marching, speaking up against the discrimination in our criminal justice system."
Cook closed his speech by emphasizing that the "there is no better time than the present" to fight for a future where "every person is truly equal."
"Fifty years later, it's up to us to answer Dr. King's call for justice," Cook said. "To bend that arc of the moral universe. To never stay silent on the things that matter. To be real heroes."
Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook!