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The Fight for Justice: Manufacturing Leaders Can Make a Difference

June 9, 2020
Manufacturing leaders must reflect on the courage and ideals of the heroes of the civil rights movement to realize their potential.

The unjustified killings this spring of three black Americans, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and our country’s polarized reaction to the ensuing protests, demonstrates that 57 years after Martin Luther King proclaimed a dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that dream has gone unfulfilled. If as a society we still aspire for equality under the law for all citizens, we have our work cut out for us. But there is a clear path forward, and the leaders of American manufacturing can make a difference in constructing a more just society.

To realize this potential, those leaders can reflect on the courage and ideals of Dr. King and the other heroes of the civil rights movement.

I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in the midst of the civil rights movement during the infamous reign of Bull Connor. Many people risked their careers, and some lost their lives, to protest the need for a society based on equal justice. 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. In 1963 Morgan gained national fame for his fiery oration after the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, a speech he previewed with my father in a call the night before. “Chuck,” my father counseled, “after you give that speech you’ll have to leave Birmingham.” A man of courage and deep conviction, Morgan gave the speech anyway and was indeed forced to flee with his family.

Although almost six decades has ensued, the text of Morgan’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 the city’s overt racism, police brutality, and threats against civil rights activists, while politicians looked the other way, was ultimately as much of a factor in the murders of those young girls as the actual tossing of the bombs.

Today, Morgan’s words still haunt us. Year in and year out, decade after decade black Americans have faced a different kind of justice than the rest of us, and society has looked the other way. We continue to struggle with bigotry and violence against black Americans and others who are “different.”

Yet a tipping point seems to have finally been reached. A majority of us now acknowledge the imbalance of justice, as public surveys bear out. For example, a 2019 Pew Research poll found that 63% of white adults said that, in dealing with police, blacks are generally treated less fairly than whites. Similarly, 61% of whites said the U.S. criminal justice system treats black people less fairly.

How can manufacturing leaders help achieve a society with greater equal justice? Again, they 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 a decade considered anachronistic. Similarly, manufacturers can alter societal norms by creating more inclusive workforces and providing diversity training for their employees. By building a broader demographic pool of employees - of different races, ethnicities, genders, religious beliefs, and sexual orientations - they can help create new social standards regarding inclusiveness and tolerance.

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 molders – of a society in which the value of a black American’s life is equal to that of a white American’s.  Yes, it will take courage and resolution for our leaders to rise above the daily needs of their businesses. But the goal is a worthy one – a society where future generations will be judged, in Dr. King’s words, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Almost 60 years after he shouted out “I have a dream,” it is still just a dream. Manufacturing leaders can work together to make it a reality.

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