As part of the first annual Miriam Decosta-Willis Lecture Series, Jessica Ann Levy spoke about U.S. black empowerment in the business sphere of the 1960s and how such history is relevant today on Tuesday, Feb. 7.
A doctoral candidate in the history department, Levy focused on the impact of Reverend Dr. Leon H. Sullivan in the Civil Rights era in her talk entitled “Incorporating Struggle from MLK to Trump.”
A recipient of the Dean’s Teaching Fellowship, the Frederick Jackson Turner Society Fellowship and the German Historical Institute’s International Business History Fellowship, Levy drew on material from her dissertation, which examines the transnational rise of Black empowerment in the U.S. and South Africa.
“I use black empowerment as a term to describe a range of government and private initiatives promoting black entrepreneurship, job training and other kinds of black commercial activity stemming out of the late 20th century freedom struggle,” she said.
Instead of discussing the topic of black empowerment in a broader sense, Levy concentrated on what she calls “incorporating struggle.”
“‘Incorporating struggle’ refers to the struggle by which black struggle is appropriated by business and made to serve in the perpetuation of American capitalism locally and globally,” she said. “To further elaborate on what I mean by this, I will focus on a series of initiatives led by the Reverend Leon Sullivan.”
A well known civil rights leader, Sullivan became the first black director of the board of a Fortune 500 company when he joined the board of General Motors (GM) in 1971.
Levy looked into the importance of the Selective Patriots Movement, organized by Sullivan and other black ministers in Philadelphia. This movement was made for African-American workers to have better employment opportunities.
“It depended on and looked to reinforce the logic of the market,” she said. “Implicit in the strategy employed by Leon Sullivan was the notion that if they could eliminate the racial barriers preventing black Americans from obtaining equal access to jobs, then the market would take care of the rest.”
However, as Levy explained, this proved to not be the case. Outside of the black elite, many African Americans continued to suffer the consequences with the industrialization and capital flight long after both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts that overturned legal segregation.
Nevertheless, Sullivan’s work in creating the Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center, Inc. (OIC), an organization that sought to train African Americans in vocational training to advance their careers, eventually resulted in his appointment to the GM board of trustees.
“Sullivan’s appointment to the General Motors board of trustees to many symbolized the pinnacle of black advancement within corporate America,” Levy said, “As a board member, Sullivan gained access to some of the highest spaces of corporate power including the company board room and in turn, Sullivan and other directors attempted to use their positions to advocate various issues affecting blacks globally and locally.”
While this advocacy from within the confines of corporate management had some success, including Sullivan’s ability to negotiate more hiring of black managers and salespeople, Levy also discussed its limitations.
“In exchange for the concessions on hiring and the other kinds of black empowerment, General Motors leveraged Sullivan’s appointment to boost the company’s own image as a leader of racial relations and corporate social responsibility,” she said. “Ultimately then, Leon Sullivan’s story helps to illuminate the various ways American business appropriated black struggle to further their own image and to legitimize American capitalism.”
Levy stated that learning about this incorporated struggle helps us understand the current state of events in America.
“There are certain similarities between our present moment and the era in which people like Sullivan operated that can help guide us in the search for new strategies that can help to combat the continued attack on marginalized people locally and globally,” she said.
One of these lessons, according to Levy, is that individuals need to remain critical of those who claim to speak for marginalized people.
“In recent weeks, Donald Trump has surrounded himself with an ever-growing circle of black celebrities and notables with figures like Kanye West, Steve Harvey and Ben Carson,” she said.
Levy criticized the actions of these public figures and how their actions might affirm Trump’s claims.
“Many of these figures insist they merely want to hear what Trump has to say, and yet, as with Sullivan’s appointment to the GM board, the high visibility of these meeting, the photo ops, the men shaking hands and smiling alone helps to bring certain legitimacy to Trump’s claims to represent all Americans regardless of race,” she said.
In response to Trump’s recent remarks on Frederick Douglass, Levy stated that it is important not dismiss these blunders as mere acts of stupidity, as it is up to citizens to recognize such acts and act upon them.
“Instead, we must critique them for what they are: appropriations of blackness by Trump officials in effort to legitimize his presidency,” she said. “Looking forward it is further on us to respond to these misappropriations.”