“You can’t legislate morality.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957
“A law may not make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in response
Sixty years later, history has proven both leaders right. During that time the federal government has played a critical role bridging the legal gaps that historically tolerated discrimination. Still, the progress made through Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 merely laid the foundation for equality. We have a lot more work to do-and American manufacturers are in a prime spot to play a leadership role in creating a more inclusive society.
To fully realize this potential, today’s business leaders might reflect on the courage and ideals of the heroes of the civil rights movement.
I was born in Birmingham during the infamous Bull Connor era. As those who lived through the period remember, many in the South risked their careers, and even lives, to create a more accepting society. My father was a Jewish lawyer and close confidante of several notable civil rights activists, including the white Charles “Chuck” Morgan, Jr., and the black Orzell Billingsley. While my family moved to the nation’s capital in the early 1960s, my father maintained tight bonds with these freedom fighters over the years.
Chuck gained national fame for his fiery oration after the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church (The church still stands today, right across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute), a speech he previewed in a call to my father. “Chuck,” my father counseled, “after you give that speech you’ll have to leave Birmingham.” A man of courage and deep conviction, Chuck gave the speech anyway and was indeed forced to flee with his family. They stayed in my basement just outside of Washington for a year until Chuck could set up shop as the new head of the ACLU’s Atlanta office.
Although more than half-a-century has ensued, the text of Chuck’s speech still resonates today.
“Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful worried community asks, ‘Who did it? Who threw that bomb?’ The answer could be, ‘We all did it.’ Every last one of us is condemned for that crime…. We all did it.”
In other words, the silent acceptance by otherwise decent citizens of overt racism, threats against civil rights activists, and politicians willing to look the other way was ultimately as much of a factor in the murders as the actual tossing of the bombs.
Fifty-four years later Chuck’s words still haunt us. This summer in Charlottesville, Va., a 20-year-old with neo-Nazi sympathies plowed his car into a group of citizens peacefully protesting white supremacists marching through their town. One woman was killed and 19 injured. Laws may have changed, but our society continues to struggle with morality, especially when it comes to bigotry and violence against people who are “different.” The latest public surveys bear this out. In 2016 Pew Research found that 61% of black Americans believe race relations are generally bad. And a Gallup poll this past spring found that 42% of Americans worry “a great deal” about race relations, compared to 17% in 2014.
Business leaders represent their communities as much as politicians and are often more trusted. Their voices, not only calling for tolerance but challenging public expressions of prejudice and hate, make a difference. Moreover, manufacturers can learn from the civil rights leaders of the past. The civil rights movement chipped away at traditional social norms by creating more inclusive public institutions. Separate accommodations, perceived as customary in the South in the 1950s, was within two decades considered anachronistic.
Similarly, business leaders can alter societal norms by creating more inclusive workforces. Building a broader demographic pool of employees-of different races, ethnicities, genders, religious beliefs, and sexual orientations-not only makes good business sense, but it can also help create new social standards regarding inclusiveness. Unfortunately, while a 2016 MAPI study found that two-thirds of surveyed manufacturers focused on recruiting and retaining women and minorities, their current strategies have not improved diversity in our manufacturing workforce. We must do more.
Dr. King once said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” Manufacturing leaders have a clear opportunity to become such builders.