Civil rights are everybody's business

Whether in the hiring, development, or retention of diverse talent or in the creation of truly inclusive environments, corporations have an undeniable power to utilize their ability to be civil rights champions while positively impacting their businesses.

Last week, our nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with events from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial. Speakers included three Presidents who offered inspirational and aspirational remarks from the same place that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shared his dream a half-century earlier.

With the world watching, the issue of civil rights in America was thrust onto center stage with an elevated visibility that sparked widespread conversations and questions. Are civil rights still relevant? What do civil rights mean in the 21st century? Do civil rights have any place within business and corporations?  

Having proudly participated in many of the commemorative events, I can affirm two things. First, there have been few times that these issues and questions have confronted generations as clearly as they do now – from voting rights to anti-discrimination protections in the workplace and beyond. Second, key areas of civil rights continue to be issues of import for companies – and absolutely have a place within 21st century business.

On the eve of the March anniversary, first lady Michelle Obama hosted a screening for a group of students at the White House of The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights. During her remarks, Mrs. Obama referred to Young as one of the “unsung heroes in our history whose impact we still feel today.” Those of us from communities of color who have ascended the corporate ladder – or successfully traversed the jungle gym – still feel Young's impact, as do countless companies that have seen the bottom-line and innovation benefits of diversity within their own organizations.

One of the six organizers of the 1963 March on Washington and then-executive director of the National Urban League, Young was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. However, his battles were not waged on buses, at lunch counters, or with frequent demonstrations. His “critical role in the struggle for change,” noted the first lady, was in Fortune 500 boardrooms. He convinced C-suite executives of the business advantages of a diverse workforce, breaking down barriers for people of color to gain employment opportunities within major corporations and forging alliances in business and government that challenged the status quo.  

The “critical role” was necessary to bring meaningful change to corporate America in the 1960s – and it remains so today. As Mrs. Obama urged, “You could work on a corporate board, sit on a board, or be right there at the table of change. You could strategize in the halls of power like Young did.” It is the role that many diversity and inclusion teams and HR departments play every day. It is also a role that must always have a seat at the boardroom table.

As I sat in on a few meetings last week between C-level executives at several Fortune 100 companies and national civil rights leaders, three things struck me. First, they respected each other's input and displayed a genuine effort to understand the different perspectives at the table. Second, both were direct in communicating their support of diversity as a business value – openly sharing their advantages and assets, as well as their liabilities and vulnerabilities. Lastly, in each instance, the conversation was established as ongoing. The meetings weren't one-off gatherings spawned out of convenience or celebration. In some cases, they were continuations of previously established diversity efforts. In others, they were the beginning of a longer engagement to foster improved diversity and inclusion at all levels.

Whether in the hiring, development, or retention of diverse talent or in the creation of truly inclusive environments, corporations have an undeniable power to utilize their ability to be civil rights champions while positively impacting their businesses. President Barack Obama appropriately captured the relevance and purpose of our charge during his August 28 remarks:

“The measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether [we] provide a fair shot for the many. This remains our great unfinished business."

Now, let's get back to work.

Latraviette Smith, former VP, global diversity and inclusion for American Express, has spent 15 years in communications in agency, corporate, consumer, and multicultural PR, as well as senior marketing roles. Her column will focus on the PR industry's ongoing efforts to advance diversity among its ranks at all levels. Connect with her via LinkedIn or at latraviette@gmail.com.

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