On a January morning in 1990, I arrived at my office and found a message atop my daily call list from fellow publisher John Johnson in Chicago. I dialed his number right away, and when he came on the line, Johnson was cordial as usual but quickly got down to business.
“You are going to be getting a call from Chrysler,” he said matter-of- factly. “I’m going off their board, and I told them I had only one recommendation for my replacement.”
He didn’t wait for me to ask.
“I told them it had to be Graves,” he said.
Immediately, I flashed back to the early days when Johnson had tested me time and again. I thought too of how our rivalry had grown into a friendship based on mutual respect and cooperation. Over the years, we had become strong allies bonded together by our belief in economic development as the key to true freedom for African Americans. We were much stronger in our mission as friends than as rivals.
For example, when lower echelon employees at Hyatt Hotels had refused to purchase advertising in BLACK ENTERPRISE, Johnson went with me to meet with the CEO of the hotel chain and help facilitate the business we would do. By recommending me for the Chrysler board of directors, Johnson had proved once again that he lived as he preached. He has repeatedly shown that commitment, as I believe each of us has, to compete in the white-dominated business world.
I feel that a large part of my role as publisher of BLACK ENTERPRISE is to be a catalyst for black economic development in this country. When I can act as an instrument to make it happen for legitimate and reasonable people, I do it. I try to be helpful and put people together, whether it’s finding a candidate for a trustee position at Howard University or reaching out to the CEO of Motown Records to save a company that was at the forefront of black economic development in the early days.
When Johnson recommended me for the board of Chrysler, he was telling me that I had proved to him that I was willing to do as he had done: to stand in harm’s way when necessary to clear the way for others of our race to compete and succeed in the game of business.
Getting on the Chrysler board was an incredible opportunity for me at that time. Though the nation’s No. 3 automaker had experienced difficulties, it was still one of America’s greatest and most recognizable companies. And under CEO Lee Iacocca (who was succeeded, to Chrysler’s benefit, by current CEO Robert Eaton and vice chairman Robert Lutz), it was on its way to becoming one of the nation’s greatest comeback stories as well.
I realized that this was an opportunity to learn an entirely new field of business and to have an impact on an industry that employed millions of African Americans. I was thrilled and grateful, but I tried to sound professional and as matter-of-fact