by Marc Morial, TO BE EQUAL
In the long arc of the nation’s history of racially-motivated voter suppression, 2021 will stand as a clear and distinct moment that changed everything that came after.
Whether it will symbolize the demise of such suppression – or its shameful entrenchment – remains to be seen.
Certainly, racially-motivated voter suppression is nothing new. The right of Black men to vote wasn’t even constitutionally-protected for the first 94 years of the nation’s existence, and the terrorist regime of Jim Crow blocked most Black citizens in the South from voting for the next 95 years.
But the surge of restrictive voting laws that began after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act with its 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder became a tsunami in the backlash to the historic Black voter turnout in 2020.
The long-overdue moment for corporate America to take a stand is upon us. And it has been brought about by its most influential Black members.
Led by Kenneth Chenault, the former CEO of American Express; Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck & Co.; former Xerox Holdings Corp. CEO Ursula Burns, and William M. Lewis Jr., chairman of investment banking at Lazard, hundreds of corporate executives signed an open letter opposing voting limits that ran as a two-page advertisement in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other publications Wednesday.
The powerful – and deeply patriotic – statement reads, very simply:
A government of the people, by the people.
A beautifully American ideal, but a reality denied to many for much of this nation’s history.
As Americans, we know that in our democracy, we should not expect to agree on everything. However, regardless of our political affiliations, we believe the very foundation of our electoral process rests upon the ability of each of us to cast our ballots for the candidates of our choice.
For American democracy to work for any of us, we must ensure the right to vote for all of us.
We all should feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote and to oppose any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.
Voting is the lifeblood of democracy and we call upon all Americans to join us in taking a nonpartisan stand for this most basic and fundamental right of all Americans.
The CEOs and other top executives of 300 companies, along with law firms, nonprofit leaders, academics and celebrities, signed their names to the letter.
“These are not political issues,” Kenneth Frazier told the New York Times “These are the issues that we were taught in civics.”
The statement does not address specific states’ election legislation. Since the election, state legislators in 47 have introduced a shocking 361 voter suppression bills. The total represents an increase of 108, or 43 percent, just in the last month. As appalling as the proposals to restrict voting are, even more alarming are the proposals to that seek to disregard the results of elections entirely. A bill pending in Arizona would allow the state legislature to overturn the results of a presidential election, even after the count is formally certified by the governor and secretary of state — and even after Congress counts the state’s electors.
Kenneth Chenault, Kenneth Frazier, Ursula Burns and William M. Lewis Jr.– all trailblazers in their industries – are longtime advocates for corporate social responsibility and civic engagement. In a prelude to Wednesday’s statement, they organized a full-page advertisement in the New York Times on March 31, headlined “Memo to Corporate America: The Fierce Urgency is Now,” that was signed by 72 Black executives.
“We think now that corporate America, Black Americans for sure, but anyone who has values in their corporation that talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, any company that has a values statement about valuing their employees has to stand with our statement,” Ursula Burns told CBS News. “Because their employees — Black, White, Hispanic, women — literally are going to be affected by this type of suppression.”
Kenneth Chenault told CNN, “What we’re calling on corporations to do is not just say they believe strongly in the right to vote. It’s to publicly and directly oppose any discriminatory legislation and all measures designed to limit any individual’s ability to vote.”
In a historic act of solidarity, hundreds of corporations did just that. Whether states will heed their call isn’t clear. But it will be remembered as a moment when standing on the sidelines was – at long last — no longer an option.