Rising to Our Leadership Challenge – Now! by Gregory Jackson
Greg Jackson Speech to the
Kappa Alpha Psi
Northern Province Council
April 29, 2011
“Rising to Our Leadership Challenge – Now!”
I want to thank Eric Brown, chairman of the Northern Province Council, for all of his hard work . . . and for selecting me to speak to such a distinguished group of guests, fraternity brothers, family members and friends. It is always an honor when anyone believes you have something important to say – and asks you to say it in a major public forum.
This Province Council weekend is part of an obviously historic year for Kappa Alpha Psi, as we celebrate the centennial of our great fraternity. Because so much of our foundation was laid here in the Midwest, it comes as no surprise that the Detroit Alumni Chapter is 81 years old – nearly as old as K-A-Psi itself, and certainly one of its pillars. My own roots in the fraternity are 34 years deep, so I could stand here for a good while and tell lies – I mean stories – about the good times and illustrious brothers I’ve had the privilege to know since 1977.
In Detroit, across the nation and around the world, Kappa Alpha Psi stands for achievement . . . honor . . . excellence. We are BET founder Robert Johnson; General Chappie James; Wilt Chamberlain and Tavis Smiley. We are the Kappa Detroit Foundation and the Sunday of Hope for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
I’m sure most of you could come up here right now and talk about Kappa history and Kappa heritage better than I can. We have a proud past, and we’ve accomplished so much as a fraternity and as prominent individuals.
But I believe my duty this evening is to focus our attention on the future, not on the past. What we’ve done in the past has been good – but not good enough for the next 100 years. As we celebrate the centennial of Kappa Alpha Psi Incorporated, throughout 2011 we can look back on our first century with tremendous pride. But the question I want to challenge you with tonight is what do we do with our next 100 years? I am convinced we have a lot more to offer than what our community and our nation is getting from us right now.
Our next 100 years of leadership have got to be about leading African Americans, obviously, but also providing leadership for America itself. We’ve got to be on the forefront of not only economic, but socio-economic change – more than we’ve ever been before. We’ve got to think bigger, and act bolder. We’ve got to break the mold.
The Reginald Lewis Example
What I’m saying is, going forward, we’ve got to be more like a young man who became one of the greatest Kappas of all time. I learned about him nearly 25 years ago, when I was just starting out as an entrepreneur. I had been trying to expand a gourmet cookie company I founded, and I had eight retail locations. But I was just about ready to switch gears and enter the car business, by enrolling in General Motors’ Minority Dealer Training program. That was when I first heard about a young businessman who was in the process of doing things no African American had ever done before.
The brother’s name was Reginald Lewis, and in 1987 he became the first African American to own a billion-dollar business. He led a leveraged buyout of the international division of Beatrice Foods, which had operations mainly in Europe. Reggie renamed the company, and the $1.8 billion TLC Beatrice International reported in annual revenue in 1987 made his company the largest Black-owned business in the nation — and probably the world.
Reggie Lewis started life in urban Baltimore, then moved on to Virginia State University – a historically Black university where he pledged the Alpha Phi chapter of K-A-Psi. The next stop was Harvard Law School, then a job with a Wall Street law firm. But even that wasn’t enough to satisfy him. He believed in setting new standards for success. So Reggie got into the venture capital business, and learned how to create wealth in a way few had imagined.
Reggie Lewis inspired me as my own business grew. His example was definitely on my mind in 2005, when my Premier Automotive Group made history by becoming the first African American-owned dealership company to top $1 billion in sales. We were the third Black-owned company in any industry to reach the $1 billion mark. The General Motors restructuring forced us to scale down some – but we are still a four-dealership company with top of the market name brands.
We as a fraternity and as individuals have to think bigger and act bolder because the challenges we face as an African American community demand first-class leadership. We are under the gun, staring down some of the same circumstances our parents and grandparents confronted when they launched the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s.
Back in 1951, 60 years ago, the problems facing African Americans seemed impossible to fix.
• We had air-tight segregation laws down South and hard-core discrimination laws and practices up North.
• Poverty, unemployment and low wages were widespread.
• We had low high school graduation rates and low college attendance rates
• Black businesses had almost no interaction with mainstream markets.
The first ray of hope we saw was the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which outlawed segregation in schools. We took that victory and used it as leverage to knock down the rest of the legal and social barriers to equal opportunity for African Americans. The key to our victory was positive, confrontational action made possible by group unity and cooperation. Black people were just as diverse, and had just as many separate and unique organizations back then as we do today. But we came together, led by our churches, sororities, fraternities and organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League.
Group cooperation is an advantage Black folks who lived in 1951 have on us today. They realized they needed each other so much, they were forced to work with each other and depend on each other.
If I can take you back for a minute . . . There was a time when every major city had an African American business, retail and entertainment center that was thriving.
“Sweet” Auburn Avenue in Atlanta
Liberty City in Miami
Hastings Street; Paradise Valley in Detroit — now I-75 and Ford Field
Harlem in New York
Today, a lot of us think we can take leave or Black folks: if I don’t want to deal with you all, I won’t deal with you all. Because we can go to all the malls and live where we want, we think can pretty much take Black folks or leave them. It’s gotten to where we don’t need each other in the same way we used to.
As an African American business man, I have to frankly tell you that if I had to depend on my community to stay in business, I’d be out of business. Yes, I do have African Americans who buy from me. But not as much as I should. If I could get Black people just from the churches to buy from my dealership, I could support all the worthy community programs you want me to support. But I can’t support them all. In metro Detroit, more African Americans purchase Toyotas at LaFontaine Toyota than with me at Warren Toyota; more African Americans purchase Mercedes in Bloomfield Hills than with me at Mercedes-Benz of St. Clair Shores; more African Americans purchase Fords at Vollman Ford in Lansing than with me at Courtesy Ford of Okemos.
Something’s wrong with that. It’s not that the objective is to make more money for me – but because when you support me you support your community. It’s a matter of voting with your dollars every time you spend a dollar with me or someone who looks like me. When you spend your money with someone else, you vote for them. When you cast your economic vote, you’re asking the one you’re voting for to reciprocate by supporting your pastor’s anniversary; by giving resources for basketball and baseball teams; helping to improve playgrounds on Livernois Linwood, Greenfield and Gratiot. I support all of those . . . and dealers who live in other communities support neighborhood activities where they live. I live in Detroit. Always have. I’m in the 7 Mile / Livernois area.
But I digress. . . . My point was that the negative of segregation did produce the positive of economic unity and cooperation. And it also produced social pressure for everyone to conform to the standards and values of the leaders of the community. That was a good thing. You may have been poor, but you lived down the street from doctors and lawyers and ministers who made you aspire to something better. What I am describing is a socio-economic system that helped us solve the very serious socio-economic problems we faced back then.
Today, segregation and discrimination laws are a thing of the past. We have achieved one of Martin Luther King’s dreams: our children can go to school with white children, and maybe they ARE singing that old Negro spiritual, Free at last, Free at last . . . But I’m not so sure. African Americans run a few Fortune 500 companies, and we own significant businesses. We even have an African American president in the White House!
But despite all this, our socio-economic problems remain as serious are they were in 1951, 60 years ago. It has been very clear to me for years – and I tell people all the time — Our problems are not just social problems, and they’re not just economic problems; they are socio-economic.
Let’s look quickly at the scope of our social problems, starting with education.
According to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, only 42 percent of Black students who enter college earn degrees: Black women graduate at a rate of 46 percent, and Black men graduate at a rate of 34 percent. The good news is those numbers are better than they were 20 years ago.
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education also reports that at least 60 percent of Black students who earn college degrees are women. And Black women make up 71 percent of all Black graduate students.
Plain and simple, as we encourage our girls to do even better in school . . . we Black men have to make education and academic excellence as exciting to our boys as we’ve made basketball and football. They need to compete just as hard, and dominate just as much in the classroom as they do on the court and on the field.
Black males and females have more serious issues between us. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, U.S. Census data shows that marriage rates among African Americans were nearly identical to marriage rates among white Americans between 1890 and 1960. At that point, our marriage rates began to lag behind other groups. By 2008, only 32 percent of Black adults were married, compared to 61 percent in 1960, according to the Pew Research Center.
Furthermore, 42 percent of African American women have never been married, a number that has doubled since 1960. Meanwhile, less than 20 percent of white women have never married.
Let me make it clear that I’m not trying to pass judgment on anyone. Our sisters have done an outstanding job of raising Black children by themselves. Yet – our children still need Black men.
According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, U.S. Census data and research studies confirm that children with married parents have the lowest rates of poverty; lowest instances of crime and delinquency; the highest educational achievement, highest incomes, best health and most stable marriages down the road.
Ultimately, it is on us as African American men to step up our game — and show a higher level of leadership and responsibility in our marriages and personal relationships.
The Economic Problems We Face
Now, what can we say about our economic challenges? It has been said that Black economic growth is and has to be the Civil Rights Movement of the 21st Century – and I couldn’t agree more.
Good paying manufacturing jobs that required no previous training made Detroit the Mecca it was and helped build the Black middle class, which made all of us who we are today. But those jobs have just about disappeared.
The American economy has changed, in ways that make it harder to find work and make a living without a good education and specialized skills. Meanwhile, not enough of us have embraced math and science and business and the specialized knowledge and skills that will allow us to prosper in the 21st century American economy. (And we all know DPS is a shame and a mess.)
The result: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24.7 percent of African Americans lived in poverty in 2008, compared to 13.2 percent of the general population and 8.6 percent of white Americans. In addition, while the national employment rate is just below 9 percent, African American unemployment is above 15 percent, and Black teenage employment is more than 40 percent.
We have people who won’t move into Detroit right now because our school system is not up to par. We don’t have a mall downtown, we don’t have shops and restaurants, our property values would be higher; our taxes would be lower – if we fixed these socio-economic problems we’ve been dealing with for so long. Why would anyone put a Target (a “Tar-jae”) on Woodward Avenue when they don’t truly believe there’s an economic base to support it?
Here’s the solution: we have to rebuild Black communities economically through our own practices. The principles of Kwanzaa are not just for Christmas time. We need more Ujaama – Cooperative Economics — in our community. We need new buildings in our neighborhood and downtown business districts. A senior center is fine, but we’ve got to think about pooling our resources to build large facilities, large factories. We need hedge funds that are major players for the next 100 years. Investments on that level will make a difference in the U.S. We can’t do it simply by sharing our needs with those outside the community. Everybody needs something. Money talks – and we know what walks!
• So we’ve got to pool more of our money. It’s got to be more than me or John getting rich individually. It’s got to be about creating wealth to pull more people in with me, so the whole community is empowered and enlarged as a result.
• Hire Black contractors and buy from Black suppliers. Invest in and joint venture with solid, Black-owned professionals. I’m not saying don’t do business with other communities. I’m just saying I refuse not to do business with my own. Otherwise, how can I expect them to do business with me? My investment banker is Black. I have a Black doctor and a Caucasian doctor. I have a Black attorney and a Jewish attorney. I highly respect the opinions of all of these professionals.
• I say again, be conscientious about where you spend your money. Vote with your dollars!
Our kids do more of what they see than what they hear. They see how we spend; they see how we build businesses that create jobs and build the local economy – or how we do not. Let’s give them something to see, something to emulate, something to be part of. Something to believe they also can do. If they see Mom and Dad doing business with Metro Foodland, a full-service, Westside grocery store owned by James and Teresa Hooks, they will probably shop at Foodland or an African American-owned grocery store like it when they get older. However, if they see Mom and Dad only shopping at the Westborn Market in Royal Oak or in Dearborn – that’s probably the only place those children will shop when they grow up and begin casting their economic votes.
• It’s time for our young, dynamic brothers to come to the forefront. Our elders need to allow more of them to take on leadership roles. Becoming wise men, true sages, is a vital and much-needed role for our experienced veterans. That’s the only way for an organization to grow and remain strong.
• Here’s how we build the leaders of tomorrow:
o We’ve got to mentor students for academic success in math and the sciences — and also in business, economics, accounting, finance and statistics – those quantitative business subjects.
o We’ve got to mentor young corporate professionals and entrepreneurs in how to run businesses: grocery stores, banks, auto dealerships, dry cleaners and other businesses. When we talk about leadership in the next 100 years, those are the building blocks, the kinds of things we need to do, and have to be.
No Tolerance for Hazing
While we’re talking about mentoring and guiding our young men, I would be remiss if I didn’t spend one moment at least on the hazing issue. We all know the pledging traditions . . . and if you came along, like I did, before the issuance of the Grand Polemarch’s Executive Order Three in 1994 . . . you know what it took to become a member of Kappa Alpha Psi or any other Black fraternity. Despite the crystal clear, zero-tolerance declarations of Executive Order Three, we still have college chapters across the country that are determined to pledge and haze to the point of seriously injuring prospects. Despite the fact that two Kappa brothers at Florida A&M were sentenced to prison for extreme hazing actions in 2006, and the chapter was suspended by the university until 2013 . . . we continue to see cases like the one at Wayne State last year, which led to the suspension of Alpha Beta chapter, after hazing put a young man in the hospital for 12 days.
As we reach out as mentors to our local college chapters, and wrap our arms around our young brothers, let’s tell them the Polemarch has zero tolerance and we have zero tolerance, too. If you want to be a Kappa, it’s time for zero tolerance on foolishness.
And let’s work on this and other issues with our brothers and sisters in other fraternities and sororities. Dr. King’s last act, while he was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike, was to stand on the motel balcony in conversation. Dr. King, himself being an Alpha, stood talking with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, a Kappa, and the Rev. Jesse Louis Jackson, a Q. We must continue to engage our other fraternal brothers and sisters in conversations and actions that propel the socio-economic growth of our community and America at large.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
We recognize that we’re going to have to work together to achieve the socio-economic solutions we so badly need in the African American community.
If we learn how to pool our talents and resources . . . actually work side by side on joint projects . . . communicate with each other, marry each other and do business with each other . . . what kind of future can we expect? We can expect a stronger community with a higher quality of life – because we will nurture investors in our people like Reginald Lewis.
Although the journey ended too soon for Reggie — he passed away at age 50 in 1993 – his legacy lives on in a number of ways. His foundation has endowed a scholarship fund at Virginia State and also launched an alumni scholarship fund at the university, in the name of Kappa Alpha Psi. His estate has established the Reginald F. Lewis International Law Center at Harvard Law School, and made generous donations to Howard University and other African American institutions.
But the most creative gift might be the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore. In return for $5 million investment, the Lewis family structured a partnership with the Maryland Department of Education that produced a curriculum in African American history that is taught in every public school, statewide.
Look at what we have here. The creative deployment of education and talent 25 years ago has produced wealth that is still making things happen today. Inspired use of that wealth has motivated an entire community to build an institution that develops young minds, and also teaches black children their history with an Afro centric focus. My brothers . . . ladies and gentlemen . . . this is the kind of far-reaching, visionary socio-economic investment we can make here in Detroit and across this nation.
Let’s get it started.
Thank you very much.
Links you may find interesting.