January 12, 2001


Acknowledge MLK Day,

Acknowledge A Movement

EDITOR'S NOTE: With very few exceptions, major corporations do not give even the slightest recognition to Martin Luther King, Jr., Day (January 15 this year), proclaimed a national holiday nearly 20 years ago. The reasons are not hard to find, writes Earl Ofari Hutchinson, but the occasion should give us a chance to reflect on how much the civil rights movement accomplished for all of us — including the corporations.


By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Corporate executives offer a regular litany of excuses when asked why they don't give their workers a day off on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday - or even acknowledge the day with a ceremony.

They claim they must stay open to be competitive, that people need to shop on that day. Or they insist that no one has ever complained to them about not celebrating the day.

Whatever their excuse, 17 years after a deeply reluctant President Reagan inked his name on the law making the third Monday in January a national holiday, corporate America still turns a blind eye to the King holiday.

A study of hundreds of businesses by BNA Inc., a Washington-based business news publisher last year found that fewer than 25 percent gave their workers the day off. Worse, this was a sharp drop off from the year before.

By contrast, 90 percent of firms gave their employees paid holidays on Memorial Day. And 50 percent gave a day off on Presidents' Day — the least celebrated of our national holidays, except for King's birthday.

The rare exceptions to the King black-out are the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., the New York and American Stock Exchanges (since 1998), and a handful of other financial service companies. Some companies such as Hughes Electronics in California keep their doors open that day but sponsor events on King and civil rights and encourage employees to participate in them.

The great irony here is that corporate America has benefited greatly from the civil rights movement. By smashing the barriers of legal segregation in employment and education, the movement opened corporate doors for talented and educated minorities and women, made diversity a watchword at many firms, and vastly increased the income and earnings of blacks, minorities, and women.

This fattened profits. Surveys show that blacks spend a greater proportion of their earnings on corporate goods and service than whites — a finding reinforced by the fact that corporate officials spend billions to advertise and promote their products in minority communities.

Yet many corporate executives remain oblivious to King day for two glaring reasons.

First is the misguided, if widely held, belief that King was a black leader, that the civil rights movement was by and for blacks, and that his holiday is exclusively a "black holiday." They ignore the gargantuan influence of civil rights battles on the women's, gay, and Latino movements here, and on independence movements in Asia and Africa. They forget the sweeping changes in law, politics, religion, and education that made America a more open and democratic society.

The second reason for corporate blindness is deep-seated corporate racism. In the past two years black employees have filed major lawsuits against Coca-Cola, American Airlines, Hyundai Semiconductor, Microsoft and dozens of other companies. The charges are almost always the same. They say that they are given the worst assignments, lower pay, and fewer chances for promotions.

Corporate executives vehemently deny practicing discrimination, but the paltry number of blacks in top-level corporate posts indicates a pervasive bias. Only a handful of the Fortune 1000 corporations have CEOs. Nearly ten out of ten senior managers are white males. Fewer than one in ten of all managerial positions are held by blacks — and these black managers are paid, on average, less than their white counterparts.

Many blacks also discover that some departments or divisions within a company are top-heavy with black employees and managers while others are virtually lily-white. This leaves many blacks stuck in dead-end positions, or pigeon-holed into "traditional" posts such as community relations, equal employment opportunity or human resources departments.

As the discrimination lawsuits show, blacks are often regarded as pariahs. Many of their corporate peers believe that blacks are lazy, undisciplined, poorly organized, incompetent, affirmative action hires, outspoken, rebellious, and chronically prone to blame management or white employees for their problems and failures.

If many corporations continue to downplay — or flat-out deny — racial discrimination in their operations, it should come as no surprise that they snub the civil rights movement, and it's most prominent symbol, Dr. King.

Their refusal to pay homage to the man and the movement that did so much to spiff up their image and enhance their profit margins shows that civil rights still remain hollow words in many corporate boardrooms.

Hutchinson is the president of The National Alliance for Positive Action. His e-mail address is ehutchinson@natalliance.org. His website is. www.natalliance.org

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