Most Powerful Black Business Leaders Urge Corporate America to Fight For Voting Rights

Most Powerful Black Business Leaders Urge Corporate America to Fight For Voting Rights

Some of the nation’s most powerful Black business leaders are urging corporate America to take action in the fight against voter suppression.

From former chief executives of the largest publicly traded corporations to CEOs of BE 100s companies, more than 70 Black, high-ranking executives have assembled for the first time to focus on a core social justice issue. As such, they have launched a campaign to address a series of new voting laws that serve to disenfranchise large swaths of voters—especially the Black electorate. Such legislative action has been driven by Republican-dominated legislatures in more than 40 states.

Kenneth Chenault, former chief executive of American Express, and Kenneth Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck, are leading the charge, which was prompted by the speedy passage of a bill in Georgia that they maintain will make voting far more difficult for multitudes of Blacks within the state. Noting that major companies—including those based in Georgia—had not taken a position on this controversial piece of legislation, Chenault, Frazier, and others maintain it is imperative that corporate America become fully engaged in this issue.

“There is no middle ground,” Chenault told Black Enterprise. “We’re calling on corporate America to publicly oppose any discriminatory legislation and all measures designed to limit Americans’ ability to vote. It is also very important to have a recognition of African American history and experience. Voting rights is fundamental.”

He adds that the effort is nonpartisan but “corporations cannot state that they don’t want to get involved. This is a moral issue…This is about American values.”

This message was made clear with the publication of an open letter entitled, “Memo To Corporate America: The Fierce Urgency of Now” that appeared today in The New York Times. It recounted the “bloody struggles of the Civil Rights Movement that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965” and indicated that now “the fundamental tenets of our democracy are under assault by forces that seek to take this country backwards.”

The letter further stated that as “Black business leaders, we cannot sit silently in the face of this gathering threat to our nation’s democratic values and allow the fundamental right of Americans, to cast their votes for whomever they choose, to be trampled upon yet again.”

Citing the document as “not just a statement but a call to action,” Chenault says that the group seeks to get the nation’s corporate leadership involved in the issue by unequivocally stating its support of voting rights and using lobbying resources to eradicate legislative efforts that deny voters of their franchise.

READ FULL LETTER HERE: “Memo to Corporate America: The Fierce Urgency is Now.”

In fact, Chenault and Frazier expect to gain more emphatic comments from corporations like those from Coke and Delta Air Lines, which today characterized Georgia’s voting law as being “unacceptable.” In response to the open letter, Delta CEO Ed Bastian sent a memorandum to employees stating that the law creates barriers for underrepresented members of the state’s electorate, particularly Black voters, to gain full representation.

“I need to make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values,” Bastian wrote in the memo.
Prior to the distribution of the open letter, Delta and a number of Georgia-based companies had been threatened with boycotts because the bill’s opponents were dissatisfied with what they viewed as a tepid corporate response.

Another vital element, Frazier told Black Enterprise, is providing further education about the content of the Georgia law and how it can serve as a model for other restrictive measures. For example, he says the legislation limits remote voting and invalidates signature identification in favor of driver’s licenses. Moreover, the law makes mobile voting and even providing food and water to voters standing in long lines illegal. Frazier said Georgia’s State Legislature put in place such measures without any public hearings on electoral practices or evidence of fraudulent activity.

Chenault and Frazier moved quickly to connect with Black business leaders to drive this initiative. On Sunday, the former AMEX CEO says that he and Frazier held discussions, sharing concerns about the current political climate with William M. Lewis, Jr., Managing Director and Co-Chairman of Investment Banking at Lazard, Ltd., and former Darden Restaurants CEO Clarence Otis. That dialogue sparked scores of calls and enlistment of signatories that included, among others, former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald, retired TIAA CEO Roger Ferguson, former Citigroup Chairman Richard Parsons, Vista Equity CEO Robert F. Smith, former BET Networks CEO Debra L. Lee, Ariel Investments Chairman and Co-CEO John W. Rogers, Jr. and Raymond J. McGuire, the former Citigroup Vice Chairman and current candidate for mayor of New York City—a collection of business luminaries in which Chenault asserted that “BE played a role in building this network.”

Participants also include The Black Economic Alliance, a nonpartisan group composed of high-powered Black executives and business leaders that has financed and endorsed progressive candidates and is expected to gain guidance on equitable electoral practices from figures such as former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams of Fair Fight.