While Martin Luther King, Jr. is most known for his leadership on securing civil rights, he was also passionate in his fight for economic justice. His stance on economic issues was summed up in one of the last speeches before his death, during which he said, “It is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.”
Over the past year, no shortage of companies have pledged their alignment with economic and racial justice as the Black Lives Matter movement channeled the passion of millions of Americans. The events of the last two weeks, however, illustrated that many of these companies’ deeds fell far short of meeting their words.
How? Start by following the money trail. The Associated Press estimated that companies have donated at least $170 million to politicians who voted to overturn the November presidential election results. Six of the largest U.S. asset managers alone reportedly donated over $100 million to this group of politicians. Those donations are about as far from a ploy to uphold King’s ideals as any company can get.
On one hand, you could defend these companies by saying they didn’t know what would happen on Jan. 6. Then again, it’s not as if these elected officials hid their views on matters of race and economic justice.
It’s no wonder these political donations are widely seen as tacit approval of a fight to overturn an election that was largely decided by people of color voting in huge numbers — only to be told for weeks that their votes were illegitimate and didn’t matter. That’s quite a departure from King’s “Give Us the Ballot” speech from over 60 years ago, when he implored the federal government to secure voting rights for Black Americans.
Corporate public statements in the last 10 days echo last summer — when corporations were practically stepping over each other proclaiming that they, too, stood with Black Americans. But the problem for many of these companies was, again, the money trail. As Will Meyer discussed in an op-ed on Business Insider last August, statements ring hollow when those same companies either help fund, or lend their technology, to a system of law enforcement that too often singles out people of color. “Yet despite these gestures that have gained untold ‘earned’ media for these companies, each one remains deeply invested in punitive systems that continue to harm Black and brown lives,” Meyer wrote.
Many civil rights leaders see criminal justice reform as one way to continue King’s legacy, which included his advocacy to transform a legal system stacked against Black Americans. The reality, however, is that more companies are entwined in the U.S. prison system than those making any effort or even noise to reform it.
Bottom line: Many companies are, time and again, great at talking the talk, but when it comes to the walk, many trip before they’re even out the door. Abetting a system and group of leaders that tried to silence people who voted for a shift in racial and economic justice won’t cut it. Neither will grand promises of ending all political donations — that’s only resuming the “both sides” argument. Last we checked, there aren’t two sides on supporting American democracy or striving to ensure racial equality.
As for the argument that companies need to tread carefully in order to not upset some of their stakeholders, here’s the problem: It’s not that the cat is already out of the bag. In fact, that cat is long gone, and you’ll never catch it.
As Ben & Jerry’s CEO Matthew McCarthy wrote in Ellen McGirt’s latest RaceAhead newsletter: “Activism at a corporate level comes down to a unified walk and talk. Businesses must make transparent their values and take actions to address real social and/or environmental ills. If you're not willing to act, there's no sense in getting involved in the game because the people you serve are too smart, too savvy, and will call B.S.”
Whether the call is to have a more diverse and inclusive workforce, or to support everyone’s right to vote, or to pay a fair wage, the way companies can honor King is to take action now. Vague promises to correct injustice by 2025 just won’t cut it — and as McCarthy says, you’ll be called out on your response if the promises aren’t followed up with deeds.
Image credit: Bee Calder/Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.