(CNN) -- In an uncharacteristically personal address, Apple CEO Tim Cook is speaking out about civil rights, saying equality for all is "at the core of my beliefs and values."
The speech came when Cook was accepting a lifetime achievement award from Auburn University, his alma mater, in New York City last week. He said he recalled seeing a cross burning, a symbol of racism, during the turbulent civil-rights struggles of the 1960s in Alabama.
"This image was permanently imprinted in my brain and it would change my life forever," he said. "I could never understand it, but I knew then that America's, and Alabama's, history would always be scarred by the hatred that it represented."
Cook called on Congress to act on immigration reform and to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013, which would "demand equality and non-discrimination for all employees, regardless of who they love."
His comments at times took on a personal tone.
"I have seen and I have experienced many other types of discrimination, and all of them were rooted in the fear of people that were different than the majority," he said.
He said working at Apple has been different.
"I was very fortunate that my life's journey took me to Apple," Cook said. "In addition to finding a company and a founder unlike any other, I found at Apple a company that deeply believed in advancing humanity, through its products and through the equality of all of its employees."
Cook said Apple works to ensure all of its products are accessible to people with physical and mental disabilities, not to make more money but "because it is just and right."
Apple is one of several Silicon Valley companies that have been vocal on civil issues like immigration reform, nondiscrimination and same-sex marriage.
Last year, Google launched a campaign called "Legalize Love," dedicated to LGBT rights. Apple has donated money to the fight against California's Proposition 8, which would have banned gay marriage. Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon also have been involved in similar efforts.
On a separate note, Cook began his comments by referencing another issue of import to the room full of Auburn faithful.
"I'm going to make my comments brief, but I may ask for one extra second at the end, because we all know what a difference that can make," he said.
In a dramatic football game two weeks ago, Auburn defeated archrival Alabama when the Crimson Tide attempted a game-winning field goal with one second remaining, only to see Auburn's Chris Davis return the missed kick 109 yards for an improbable victory. The win helped catapult Auburn to next month's national championship game.