Authors: Henry Louis Gates
Vernon Jordan—lawyer, leader, adviser to presidents—sat on his first corporate board in 1972. “We’ve come a long way from the seventies if you think about Dick Parsons, CEO at AOL Time Warner, Ken Chenault of AmEx, Stan O’Neal of Merrill Lynch, and Frank Raines of Fannie Mae. These four black men control in excess of $300 billion in market capitalization, and they employ some 300,000 people. That was inconceivable in my time, and now they are CEOs at companies that would not have hired their parents, except in menial jobs.”
This is Martin Luther King, Jr., on the four girls who died in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing: “But I hope you can find a little consolation from the universality of this experience. Death comes to every individual. There is an amazing democracy about death. It is not aristocracy for some of the people, but a democracy for all of the people. Kings die and beggars die; rich men die and poor men die; old people die and young people die. Death comes to the innocent and it comes to the guilty. Death is the irreducible common denominator of all men. I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity’s affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.”
That is Martin’s eulogy for the girls. One was eleven years old; three were fourteen years old. Most people don’t think about Martin’s Memphis speech. They think about “I may not get there with you.” But the eulogy is unbelievable. They finally convicted Bobby Frank Cherry, who was a former Klansman, in May of 2002, thirty-nine years after the crime. Two other men had been convicted in 1977 and in 2001.
On a trip to Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where I was giving the commencement in May of 2002, I landed at an airport north of Jackson. As we pulled out of the airport onto a highway, I looked up and the sign said medgar evers boulevard. Medgar was my friend. He was my colleague. I was the field director of the NAACP in Georgia; he was the field director in Mississippi. We did a lot of things together. Blacks have integrated institutions of learning at all levels in Mississippi in the years since Medgar was murdered, and from 1963, the year Medgar died, to the year 2000, the number of black registered voters in Mississippi rose from 28,000 to 450,000.
When we got to the Tougaloo campus that day, we went to the library and stood waiting for the commencement to begin. I saw a group of people moving toward the library, following a man who turned out to be the governor of the state of Mississippi, who had come to Tougaloo College—which was a hotbed of demonstrations in the sixties—to robe up, march, and address the graduates.
I remember when Paul Johnson, Jr., was governor of Mississippi, in the mid-sixties. I remember when I could not convince him to amend the articles of incorporation for Tougaloo College. When Johnson was lieutenant governor in 1962, he physically blocked federal marshals who were escorting James Meredith as he enrolled at Ole Miss. In those days at Tougaloo, what was considered a bastion of communists was bringing down the system of segregation. And here, four decades later, was the governor of Mississippi, who knew everybody and everybody knew him, and he was glad and honored to be there.
If you think about the March on Washington in 1963, you saw the best and the brightest of black leadership, and that march and what happened subsequently created four new leadership classes that had been virtually nonexistent. Black elected officials constitute one new class. The second class comprises blacks who pierced the corporate veil from the boardroom to management to CEO, blacks who manage, lead, run predominantly white institutions: Cliff Wharton becoming president of Michigan State, Frank Thomas going to the Ford Foundation, and now Colin Powell running the State Department.
Then there is a huge number of people who lead and run indigenous community organizations. This is a whole new class, because historically, all of the leaders were tied to a tent. The poverty program, the new urban program, brought in community people, and they told NAACP people and they told the tent brothers, move over! Make room. We have our own constituency. So there is a huge group of indigenous leaders at the community level that’s a known leadership class.
The fourth leadership class is the new black entrepreneur. Historically, in our community, we buried our own, we had our own drugstore, we had our own little laundry, and they catered to the needs of that particular community. But now it is different. We not only have our street but Main Street.
There’s a difference between black leaders and leading blacks. Leaders have to be certain who they are and what they stand for, and they have to be rooted and grounded in that process and stay with what they believe. I like to think that that’s what dictated my decisions when I was a black leader. When I was head of the Urban League, and when I became head of the United Negro College Fund, I was a black leader, because I had a constituency. Today I am a leading black; I am not a black leader, although I get described that way. I don’t have constituencies to which I am responsible and for which I have a responsibility for advocacy and programs, and I think that is the definition of a black leader. But a leading black is somebody who everybody knows. That means they have opinions but they don’t have a constituency that they can take here, there, and yonder.
I had dinner recently with four young black businesspeople—two women and two men who decided to bid on me, won me in a raffle, for Project She, which disseminates information to young black women in this community about breast cancer. There was a fund-raiser and I was up for auction, and they put their pennies together and they won this auction. I never asked what the price was; I didn’t want to know. So I had dinner with them. I loved it, because these kids, who are in their thirties, are all in the finance business and investment banking. One just left investment banking to go work for BET, where she’s director of corporate development. They all have master’s degrees, M.B.A.’s; they are all single, young, and ambitious; and they are very good friends and they came together in this project. I said to them, what you all are doing by supporting Project She is as important as your freedom rights. It’s in a different context, but it is service, it is helping, it is making things right for black people. I think one of the frustrations is that people unfortunately think they have the same responsibility to do what was done in my time, but in the words of Shakespeare, “The occasion shall instruct you.”
So there are not going to be any marches of freedom rights; we’ve moved beyond that. But these young people were taking their time out to support this project, to give their money to go to the fund-raiser, to make things better for black people. It is still the movement, but it’s at another stage and another process that is equally important, and it was important for me to make them feel that this was their contribution. Now, it’s not going to make the
New York Times
and it’s not going to make the nightly news, but that does not make it unimportant. And I appreciate the frustration. I came out of law school in June of 1960. I finished law school on a Friday, and on Monday morning I’m with Don Hollowell, a black attorney, in the Atlanta Municipal Court getting kids out of jail. That’s out of school, into that action. Well, it’s not like that always, but the other thing is that those kids who won dinner with me at the fund-raiser had options after college and business school that were not available to me, not even well after I graduated.
It was just totally different for me. When I finished law school in 1960, there was not a job in Atlanta for a black lawyer—no matter what school you went to or what you were and regardless of any class standing—not in the city government, the county government, the state government, or the federal government, and certainly not in a private law firm. And so my only option was to choose between a black real estate lawyer, who was offering more money, and Don Hollowell, who was offering me thirty-five dollars a week to be his law clerk, and I chose it. I was as happy as I could be. I had a wife and child, and I was in the movement. I was a soldier, a foot soldier, and it was very exciting. Six months after law school, in 1961, I was escorting Charlayne Hunter through the mobs as she enrolled at the University of Georgia. And I understood why I was there and why I had gone to Howard University Law School, which was the only law school that had a course in civil rights, in 1957. At other law schools, they taught the Commerce Clause, but at Howard, we were taught the Commerce Clause and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and it was a school with a great heritage. It was Durban Marshall’s school and it was Spotswood Robinson’s school and it was Robert Carter’s school, and it was a forum where the dry runs for the Supreme Court arguments took place.
There was nothing better than going at night to the dry runs and sitting and watching Bob Maine, Bill Coleman, Frank Reeves, Jackie Owen, Don Hollowell, Jack Greenberg, and Constance Motley. You were seeing in action what you wanted to be. When they would take their breaks and stand around outside the courtroom, Doug Wilder and I—we were there at law school together—would just stand around and just listen and be in their presence.
The integration of corporate America has been going on a very long time.
I went on my first corporate board in 1972. Two years earlier, I first came to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the building where I now work, with Dr. Fred Patterson, founder of the United Negro College Fund and third president of the Tuskegee Institute. Patterson was the son-in-law of Robert Moton, who was the second president of Tuskegee. Patterson married Moton’s daughter, which is probably how he got to be president. I’d just moved to New York from Atlanta to become the new executive director of the College Fund. I believed with a passion in the mission of the fund. We had not gained a level playing field for blacks with respect to education, and still have not. I had always believed in the role of historically black colleges. The small number of openings each year for blacks in the country’s white colleges cannot possibly serve the thousands of black students who seek an education and full participation in the civic, social, and economic life of this country.
So I was the new kid on the block, literally. The president of the College Fund, Dr. Stephen H. Wright, had recently left that post, and the fund had other troubles. The philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III had resigned from its board of trustees, as had advertising executive David Ogilvy and Andrew Heiskell, the chairman of Time Inc. Disputes about the management of the fund had led to an impasse.
Dr. Patterson thought it would be helpful to try to persuade Mr. Rockefeller to come back on the board of the fund. Mr. Rockefeller was not very nice to us; in fact, he bordered on being rude. And he said he was not going to come back on the board for the College Fund. Patterson introduced me as the new guy, as the young fella who was going to lead the College Fund. Mr. Rockefeller said, “I’m not gonna do it.” White fellas are always stacked here at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund down on 54, 56. And I got back to my office and Datus Smith, an aide to Rockefeller, called me and said, “Young man, you made a mistake,” and I said, “What was that?” and he said, “You shouldn’t have come here with Dr. Patterson, he’s mad with Dr. Patterson. I’m arranging for you to come back alone to see him.”
I came back about ten days later to this same building to see Mr. Rockefeller. And I went in and he said, “Why are you back here? I told you I wasn’t going back on that board.” And I said, “Well, I came to make my case. I need your help. We need your help.” And then he says, “I’m not gonna do it.” And then I proffered to him the letter that his mother wrote to the five boys about social corporate responsibility. He said, “I know what my mother wrote and I’m still not gonna do it, and I don’t know why you bothered to come back.” And I stood up and said, “Mr. Rockefeller, thank you for your time. I will do it without you.” We shook hands and I walked out.
A year later, after Whitney Young had died, maybe a month or so after— Whitney died on March 11, 1971—Mr. Rockefeller invited me back. I come into the building and I go into his office and he’s sitting there with Douglas Dillon, who was secretary of the treasury under Kennedy. “The last time you left here, young man, you were in a huff,” he said. “But you said that you were going to do it without me and you did it. You’ve done a very good job,” he added. We raised $10 million my first year for the College Fund. A lot of money. And Mr. Rockefeller said, “Now, I want to ask you to do something for me,” and I said, “Yes, sir, what is it?” and he said, “I want you to become a Rockefeller Foundation trustee.” And I said, “Mr. Rockefeller, I’ve got better judgment than you. The answer is yes.”
And so, not every time that I come in this building, but many times when I come in and head up that elevator, I think about that moment, when Mr. Rockefeller told me again he wasn’t coming back on the board of the College Fund. I felt okay, though; I didn’t feel vulnerable. I’d asked him and he’d said no, that I was wasting his time and mine. It’s very important to know when people are saying no and to get out of their way. I’d come back a second time thinking I had a chance, and I knew that he wasn’t going to be better. The Rockefellers had been very involved with the founding of the College Fund, as they were with Spelman and with other important institutions, and I knew what I had to do at the time. Later, some good came out of it. Mr. Rockefeller eventually came back on the board of the College Fund, after my time there. In the Rockfeller Foundation context, we became friends. I became good friends with his son Jay and with his brothers Nelson and David, and I attended the funerals of Mr. Rockefeller and Nelson.
Now the integration of corporate America is in a different phase. A group of us, including Leon Sullivan, Frank Thomas, Jewell Lafontant, Patricia Harris, Bill Coleman, and others, were among the first blacks on corporate boards. But we’ve come a long way from the seventies if you think about Dick Parsons, CEO at AOL Time Warner, Ken Chenault of AmEx, Stan O’Neal of Merrill Lynch, and Frank Raines of Fannie Mae. These four black men control in excess of $300 billion in market capitalization, and they employ some 300,000 people. That was inconceivable in my time, and now they are CEOs at companies that would not have hired their parents, except in menial jobs.