Trillium News

The Education of a Social Activist(A)

On behalf of the Board of Directors and the entire staff of Wainwright Bank I would like to express our heartfelt appreciation to the Lawyers’ Committee for this honor.
The Bank has often been referred to as an institution with two bottom lines. The social justice platform, our second bottom line, is in fact fueled by the business platform – they are mutually supportive. With over $680 million in assets we are now among the largest 1000 banks in the country.
Since our founding we have become, on the one hand, an entrepreneurial success story as well as, hopefully, a catalyst for social change. One of the major events that gave rise to the Lawyers’ Committee also made social justice the driving value system of Wainwright Bank: the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement of the ’60s has evolved today into a coalition of “rights” issues. Homelessness, affordable housing, the rights of people living with AIDS, immigration rights, environmental justice, economic equality and gay rights are all the children of the civil rights movement. These second generation rights issues define who we are. My remarks today are about how your profession and my profession and five decades of civil rights history intersect.
In the summer of ’64 (the year I graduated from college), 38 days apart, two remarkable events took place, each an inflexion point of history that speaks to the best and the worst of our government.
The first was the Civil Rights Act, producing one of the twentieth century’s towering legislative achievements. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in businesses such as theaters, restaurants and hotels. It banned discriminatory practices in employment and ended segregation in public places such as swimming pools, libraries and schools. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, along with the Brown v. the Board of Education decision 10 years earlier, brought to an end the web of state and local laws which had bound blacks to second-class citizenship. It must have been an immensely satisfying moment for Thurgood Marshall who as the nation’s leading legal civil rights advocate was to be appointed to the Supreme Court three years later. A remarkable journey for a man whose grandparents were slaves.
The second event that summer was the Gulf of Tonkin resolution committing this country to a devastating war in Vietnam on what ultimately turned out to be a pretext (a lesson not long remembered apparently).
Both of these events were to have a profound influence on my life.
Although I share your passion for advocacy and social justice I am not a lawyer. My own professional journey has been a bit more circuitous.
Recently I was asked to speak at an ACLU event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Army McCarthy hearings which mark the earliest part of my political education. With civil liberties and the Bill of Rights currently under attack, it has been said that the “Age of McCarthy bears some relationship to the present”. In its simplest terms the constitution authorizes the government to act; however, the Bill of Rights limits that authority thus making our democracy something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.
Fifty years ago as a child, I watched, on my small black and white TV, a somewhat fuzzy yet unsettling view of the definition of patriotism through the eyes of the Army McCarthy hearings. A climate of fear and oppression was being fostered that did much to chill dissent. Fast-forward to today, my TV screen is much larger, the picture clearer, but the view of patriotism perpetuated by our government is still just as narrow. At that moment many years ago, when Joseph Welch of Hale and Dorr confronted Sen. McCarthy with that memorable phrase ‘Have you no decency’, he became my hero (even though as a twelve year old I did not know what lawyers actually did). Thus began my educational journey.
I must confess, that journey did not start out all that auspiciously. The first college I ever enrolled in was a night school: Jersey City Junior College. At the end of my first semester I received both my marks and a notice that the college would not open next year as they had gone bankrupt. No, not a very auspicious start.
Still I pushed on, undeterred, and enrolled at the state university where ROTC was mandatory. Soon enough, like many young men in that situation, I found myself upon graduation looking to a future that included a place few of us knew much about back then, Vietnam.
I went to Vietnam in 1966 as a replacement for a platoon leader who had been wounded. The platoon had suffered a number of casualties a few days earlier. While waiting to meet the company commander in his tent I noticed a draft of a letter to the mother of a soldier who had been killed in that incident. The letter attempted to express the military’s condolences and to explain the unexplainable. I later came to learn that the young man’s name was Robert Terry from Homestead, Florida; he was a black man and just a few days short of his twenty-second birthday. Although I never met Robert Terry, I shall never forget him. It is through the lens of his short life that I try to view the civil rights movement.
Robert Terry was ten years old when Brown v. the Board of Education desegregated his school system. He was twenty years old when the Civil Rights Act prohibited segregation in public places. He was twenty one years old when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it easier for him to vote (given that he was from Florida, that statement may be relative). Had he lived and returned home, fallen in love and married a white woman, sixteen states would have criminalized his marriage. It wasn’t until June 1967 in Loving v. Virginia that the Supreme Court removed this archaic prohibition against interracial marriage. National polling at the time supported the ban by a 72% margin. It was un-elected judges who made this courageous decision against the popular will.
Although not often, even in those days in Vietnam there were moments of reflection where I could contemplate a future that did not include the Army. I’m not sure I was quite serious when I wrote to the Princeton Educational Testing Service about taking the Business Aptitude Test. Back then they had a policy that if you were more than 200 miles from a testing site they’d send someone out to administer the test. Half tongue in cheek, I told them if they were careful and took a convoy out Route 13, they might find me at a place called Lai Khe. We compromised and finally I traveled into Saigon one day and took the test.
Convinced they had made an error in admitting me, I arrived at Harvard Business School in the fall of 1967. In the 1960’s, HBS may have been the West Point of Capitalism but it was still a world of white male privilege; or as has been said ‘a place where some of my classmates born with the silver spoon in their mouth go to claim the complete place setting’.[i][i]
With financial assistance from the GI Bill, an inexpensive suit and an anti-war button pinned to it, I could not have felt more out of place. It was a world away from the diverse ranks of the soldiers with whom I had served, each of them a product of an educational system that could almost have been designed to enhance the advantages and disadvantages we are born with.
That same year Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at New York’s Riverside Church, for the first time “linked the civil rights movement to the anti-war movement and Johnson’s war on poverty to his war against Vietnam.”
Had he lived, Dr. King would likely be making a similar speech today about the civil rights movement and the civil liberties of the gay community. He did say, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” On another occasion he said, “I have worked too long and hard against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible.” Coretta Scott King said, “like Martin, I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.” Julian Bond and Coretta Scott King have called the gay marriage fight a civil rights issue in the traditional sense. This nexus was driven home recently in a meeting at Wainwright Bank, when a young black woman said that her parents faced the destructive pathology of racism with separate drinking fountains many years ago. As a lesbian she poignantly described the civil marriage debate as the separate drinking fountains of our time.
Among other issues Wainwright has championed, none may be so courageous as our support of rights for the gay community (especially in the early 90’s). Whether it was becoming one of the first corporations to support Boston’s Gay Pride celebration or becoming the first bank in the state to offer same-sex employee domestic partner benefits, Wainwright has been in the corporate vanguard of this issue. Additional milestones include a 1995 Harvard Business School case study of the Bank’s outreach to the gay community, which is now being taught at universities nationwide. Most recently, Wainwright was the only publicly traded company in the state to formally present a letter to the Massachusetts General Court expressing strong opposition to the ballot initiative that would outlaw not only gay marriage, but would bar any legal entity from extending benefits to same-sex couples. By being visibly committed to these issues Wainwright has made it possible for far larger institutions to make their workplaces more equitable.
As the largest shareholder in Trillium Asset Management the Bank has a unique window on the world of shareholder activism. Trillium has been a leader in pressing corporations to adopt equitable policies for their treatment of gay and lesbian employees. Their shareholder proposals have spurred several Fortune 500 corporations such as McDonalds, Chrysler, Johnson & Johnson and American Home Products to implement sexual orientation nondiscrimination policies. In addition, these initiatives have galvanized other investor constituencies to focus on these issues.
When Julie and Hillary Goodrich fell in love and were married they did not intend to redefine the fault lines of this coming election. They did not anticipate that their relationship would be used as a political wedge issue. Amending the Constitution to codify second class citizenship is a remedy in search of a problem. And while many contributed to the recent landmark decision, it was Mary Bonauto’s [Civil Rights Project Director for GLAD] simple and eloquent statement that said it best: ‘her plaintiffs stand before the court seeking nothing more and nothing less than the same respect under our laws and constitution that all other people enjoy’. Her passionate advocacy will be remembered a generation from now.
I hope that Wainwright is also remembered for its advocacy because success at Wainwright is not only measured through a shareholder’s lens, but by how we have employed our cultural capital in the struggle for civil liberties and human rights.
Let me conclude by challenging each of you:
Every company, no matter how successful, no matter what size, creates a legacy.
What will yours be?
Did you help your community? What kind of footprint did you leave behind?
Did your employees feel free to bring their whole selves to work, free from discrimination?
Was it only about net worth? Or was it about self worth?
Did you pay a ‘living wage’?
Did your company set an example for your industry? Were your values emulated?
When you tell your children what you accomplished here, will they be proud?
Will you be proud?
Did you have fun?
Did you make a difference?[ii][ii]
Again, thank you for this honor.
[i][i] Much has changed since 1967. The current HBS commitment to diversity sets a standard for institutions of higher learning.
[ii][ii] Adapted from work published by Minolta Corporation.