Ida Wells, a prominent African American journalist, wrote, “The only way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them.” That is why the museum dedicated to the African American experience, in Washington, D.C., is such a triumph. It tells the story of the resilience of a people forcibly brought to this country, treated as chattel and then as second-class citizens. The ascendency of an African American to the highest office in the land at the conclusion of the core exhibition raises a broader question: Where to from here?
The story begins in the early 1600s, with colonial powers jockeying for position in the global chess game. Africa had several well-developed kingdoms that were constantly warring with each other. The Portuguese were the leading force in the slave trade, conveying 6 million of a total 12 million sent to the New World (the British conveyed over 3 million). The British colonies in North America received 600,000 of the slaves, with the balance of 10.3 million going to the Caribbean islands and South America (note that more than 10 percent died during the voyage). It is stunning to see comments by British traders who lament the need to use enslaved people but say that it is the only way to run an efficient plantation.
“The Weeping Time” is the title of a graphic showing an African American mother being separated from her infant at a slave auction. Over a million slaves were sold in the period 1619-1865. The piteous screams of the children separated from parents or wives from husbands are recorded in the text. The demand for slaves increased exponentially after the invention of the cotton gin in the late 1700s because processing time was decreased by 95 percent. Hence the massive expansion of acreage planted with cotton, especially in the Deep South. Slaves were mortgaged, then sold if the owner ran into trouble. It is the ultimate irony that over 100 slaves were auctioned on the steps of Monticello, with many sent further South after the death of the heavily indebted Thomas Jefferson, the intellectual force behind “all men are created equal.”
The malign influence of the U.S. Supreme Court is clearly depicted in the Dred Scott (1857) and Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) cases. The former, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, established African Americans as property, unable to qualify for rights of citizens. The latter confirmed the validity of separate but equal facilities for whites and African Americans. As a Jew, railcars play a special role in my memory. How haunting it was to walk through a railcar from the 1920s with separate sections for races.
The Jim Crow period is similarly haunting. More than 4000 African Americans were lynched in the period 1877-1950. The pictures are stunning; crowds of vengeful whites gathered around a corpse swinging from a tree, often disfigured and bloody. The story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was lynched in 1955 in Mississippi ostensibly for offending a white woman in a grocery store, is beyond comprehension, in part because it occurred in my lifetime. Or the photo of 40,000 Ku Klux Klan members walking down Pennsylvania Ave. in D.C. without masks, celebrating their ascendancy in intolerance.
The continuing debate between factions of the African American movement on patience versus activism is portrayed elegantly. There was a rift between Booker T. Washington, an agricultural genius and advocate for slow and steady progress based on farming, versus W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the NAACP, who wanted to protest discrimination in the workforce or housing. This dialectic extends into the 1960s between Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers pushing for non-violent protest, versus Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, who were tired of waiting and demanded justice using more physical tactics. The questions in last night’s Democratic presidential debate on “stop and frisk” or police targeting of African American males were all the more poignant.
There are moments of pure joy in the exhibit: the rise of African American entertainers and sports heroes, from Michael Jackson and Diana Ross to Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier to Reggie Jackson and Muhammed Ali; the emergence of CEOs such as Ken Chenault of American Express; the brilliant speech in Chicago on Election Night 2008 by newly elected President Obama standing next to his wife Michelle; the writing of Maya Angelou and James Baldwin.
The status quo is not acceptable. Every institution has an opportunity to do better, from government to education to business to media. We need to move from national shame to inspiration as our motive, to see America as a project of continuous improvement through diversity. There is a place for anger properly channeled into meaningful action. At Edelman, we are doing our part through our employee mentoring groups, including Edelman Griot for African Americans; our work with the Gun Safety Alliance; and our volunteer efforts for Project Hood, Off the Street Club and many other worthy causes. We are committed to bringing greater diversity to our teams and our leadership—we’re grateful to clients like HP that are advancing diversity and inclusion and have been an integral part of our D&I journey. I am so proud that Lisa Osborne Ross, who was promoted yesterday to Chief Operating Officer of Edelman’s U.S. operation, accepted our offer to join me at the table. We will keep writing the story of our upward journey.
Richard Edelman is CEO.