Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Black business leaders’ efforts to stop voter suppression in the wake of Georgia’s recently enacted voting bill illustrate the vanishing separation between protest and politics in America today. They also embody the work of Georgia’s most famous civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Over 70 Black executives, led by former American Express CEO Ken Chenault, signed a letter released at the end of March that pressed corporate America to take a stand on voting rights, one of the central moral and political issues in the United States today. “The new law and those like it are both undemocratic and un-American, and they are wrong,” the letter explains.
“Memo to Corporate America: The Fierce Urgency of Now,” which debuted as a full-page ad in The New York Times, channels Dr. King’s words from his April 4, 1967, Riverside Church Speech criticizing the Vietnam War to uphold the sanctity of voting rights in America. The letter outlines the way that seeming race “neutral” or ostensibly colorblind laws and policies can be designed to have race-specific outcomes that harm the Black community. King described the need to transform American democracy against the maelstrom of war, racism, violence, and poverty as “the fierce urgency of now.”
The letter spoke for many by expressed a blunt truth: “There is no middle ground here,” he said. “You either are for more people voting, or you want to suppress the vote.” Other high-profile signers of the letter included Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, Melody Hobson, the co-chief executive of Ariel Partners and Robert F. Smith, the billionaire CEO of Vista Equity Partners.
The letter triggered national media attention, as did belated criticism of the law – which includes provisions to impose restrictions on distributing food and water to people waiting in line to vote – in corporate statements by Atlanta-based companies Delta and Coca-Cola expressing public support for voting rights. Major League Baseball has moved the All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver and grassroots organizers are calling for boycotts of the state of Georgia until the recently passed legislation is reversed.
Backlash from the some on the right against MLB was immediate and harsh, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott refusing to throw out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ opening game. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned corporate leaders to “stop taking cues from the Outrage-Industrial Complex.” Former Arkansas governor turned pundit, Mike Huckabee, went further, tweeting: “I’ve decided to ‘identify’ as Chinese. Coke will like me, Delta will agree with my ‘values’ and I’ll probably get shoes from Nike & tickets to @MLB games. Ain’t America great?” That tweet has roundly been condemned as overtly racist, but also exemplifies the culture of intolerance and hate that plagues American politics.
But former Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons, one of the signers of the letter and a self-described lifelong Rockefeller Republican, insisted to CNN that the law is “just a baldfaced attempt to prevent or suppress the number of Black voters who show up to vote in Georgia.”
From a historical perspective, Georgia’s voter suppression effort represents an especially painful reminder of the precarious nature of racial progress in America. The Peach State’s measure is one of hundreds of bills in over 40 states aimed at Black voters and voters of color around the nation.
Meanwhile, as this letter, the corporate statements and the continuing calls for corporate boycotts in Georgia demonstrate, Atlanta – the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – remains a site of historic movements for racial justice. King’s voting rights legacy hovers over Georgia and the entire nation, punctuated most recently by the Senate runoff election victories of Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Warnock’s victory proved especially sweet as he presides over Dr. King’s former pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Further, in their determination to speak out and demand that others in their corporate community do the same, these Black business leaders are embodying the best of America’s history of civil rights advocacy. Dr. King famously defined moral silence in the face of great evil as a kind of public and personal betrayal. The silence from a number of major corporations about voter suppression bills circulating in multiple states – just months after the most racially divisive presidential election in history and the White riot at the US Capitol – is deafening. It also illustrates the limits of the hashtag solidarity and virtue signaling support for Black Lives Matter that broke out across social media last year in the wake of the protests following the death of George Floyd.
This letter by African American executives, in calling on their overwhelmingly White peers to take a firm and public stance on racial justice, represents the best tradition of King’s activism. He insisted that White moderates who refused to forcefully take a stand against racial injustice were as large a problem as overt segregationists.
The reverberations of this letter have been swift and impactful. Many more White business leaders, including JPMorgan Chase CEO Jaime Dimon, have released statements in support of voting rights. Black, and now White, corporate leaders expressing support for voting rights join a chorus of voices led by Black women organizers such as Stacey Abrams and by Sen. Raphael Warnock.
The call for action by Black business leaders, though it has had these promising effects, also illustrates the chasm between corporate America’s statements promoting diversity and America’s contemporary political reality: racial division and blatant efforts to suppress Black voters. It is worth noting that, in the wake of Republican-led efforts to pass “bathroom bills” designed to discriminate against LGBTQ school children, dozens of companies signed a statement condemning the legislation. These companies embraced their moral responsibility to speak out against discrimination, though for some of them, racism thus far is proving a thornier issue. But this is a crisis that requires equally powerful and courageous allies.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the “fierce urgency of now” in the context of the need for America to overcome its tragic racial and political history by confronting it truthfully, with love and justice, in public. Over a half-century later, the fact that this sentiment is being expressed by Black business leaders and CEOs bears witness to the extraordinary political crisis this nation continues to face. It also exemplifies the importance, now more than ever, of speaking truth to power about issues that transcend partisanship, ideology and politics to occupy the very recesses of the American soul.