Almost exactly 56 years ago, on July 2nd, 1964, after Lyndon Johnson’s Herculean triumph, passing the Civil Rights Act, he allegedly told aides, “We have lost the South for a generation.” How is it that a conservative, white southern President, never known as a champion of Civil Rights, would rise to the moment, risk everything, including his party’s majority, to seize the moment not once but twice, following it up in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act?
Johnson was a remarkable student of power, politics and personality and understood the uniqueness of the moment – made possible, in part, by the tragic assassination of President Kennedy (those same two years saw nearly 250 pieces of legislation pass in the greatest Civil Rights era since Reconstruction). We are entering a similar moment today, which comes but once every few generations, if that.
Over this past weekend, in a stunning series of reversals, Mississippi suddenly announced that it was removing the Confederate icon from its State flag. It is easy to lose sight of why this happened while trying to just digest the news. This is Mississippi. The GOP dominates both state houses and the Governor’s mansion. The legislation passed overwhelmingly. Governor Tate Reeves not only reversed his position, but called for immediate action, not just another referendum, saying it’s time “to resolve that the page has been turned.” When was the last time you saw a politician do a complete reversal over the course of one weekend and call for immediate action. This. Is. History.
Mississippi’s dramatic reversal, of course, did not happen because suddenly there was a change in philosophy. The legislature and governors had been ignoring calls from the African-American community for generations. It happened now because of a growing mercantile activism. If this can happen, let alone this quickly, in Mississippi, power has shifted from government to the boardrooms and the C-Suites.
In a brilliant analysis, James Hohmann, in the Washington Post provides a step-by-step account. Leadership came from Walmart, the NCAA, the Southern Baptist Convention, NASCAR, the Mississippi Economic Council (the state’s leading business lobby), the list goes on. Power is not about philosophy, voting, or marching in the streets – though all play a critical role. Power, at least for the time being, rests in the boardroom. Facebook (a company that has been playing from behind for years and still doesn’t understand its moment) is now feeling the same heat from its advertisers, as a Fortune 500 list of advertisers sign on for the #StopHateforProfit campaign and begin their boycotts of Facebook.
In the 1960s when we marched we thought – simply and naively – that business and the military were never to be trusted. Today, both have risen to historic moments with business leading in ways it hasn’t in well over a century. We have written for the last four years about the rise of this new mercantile activism. It is now growing at a pace even we did not predict. It is a brave new world of corporate activism, leadership and responsibility and represents the largest percentage of the conversations we are having with companies these days. Each conversation is remarkable with corporate leadership asking us a version of, “We want to do the right thing but we need help in knowing what that is and how to do it.”
We have begun a series of extraordinary broadcasts, the first is with Primerus, a global alliance of law firms, getting to the heart of this issue. More are scheduled in the coming weeks.
Enjoy the listen, ask the hard questions, and lead into the void.