Though standing behind U-M to save affirmative action elevated the company’s profile on such issues of diversity, Gillum said he was wrong in his calculation with consumers.
“We had unbelievable letters from consumers who did not like our position and I did not anticipate that. There were some angry people who didn’t like what U-M was doing in terms of affirmative action. So I did misjudge that. But at the end of the day it was the right thing to do,” Gillum said. “My personal involvement in that and willingness to shepherd that was very significant and recognized by other people.”
MOST RECENTLY, GM placed the first major gift of $10 million toward the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial to be built at the National Mall in Washington.
“With that GM endorsement came a sense of legitimacy for this project. It served as a catalyst for others to be involved too. The company is there in a very visible way and to have this monument to an African-American in the National Mall among presidents is very significant,” said Gillum who chairs the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation.
Asked about his role model, Gillum, named the late Rev. Leon Sullivan, a name that evokes passionate activism, social justice and connecting the links with the African continent.
Sullivan, a Baptist minister from Philadelphia who initiated and led boycotts of corporations that refused to hire Blacks in the wake of the Jim Crow era, opening up more than 4000 jobs, accepted an invitation in 1971 to serve on the board of directors of GM. He became the first African- American to sit on the board of any major corporation in the country.
“Strangely enough, in Philadelphia, the big metropolitan city, you think people had work, but discrimination was still very strong. I decided to confront discrimination, again, because businesses were not employing Blacks in Philadelphia, Blacks couldn’t even get jobs as waiters in the good hotels,” Sullivan noted then.
Through his Opportunities Industrialized Center (OIC), established in 1964 and operated from an abandoned jailhouse, Sullivan provided jobs and life skill training and matched graduates up with employment needs of the Philadelphia business community.
After sitting on the GM board, Sullivan used his clout to launch an international campaign against apartheid in South Africa and created a manual for human rights and equal opportunity that companies in South Africa ought to use in their operations.
HIS MANUAL, titled “The Global Sullivan Principles,” is still credited for helping companies tackle discrimination around the world. Now every year the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation hosts the Sullivan Summit in Africa in his memory.
“When you talk about closing a plant or doing something that downsizes employees, the business people in the room understood it. Rev Sullivan made you go through an explanation. He would say ‘tell me about the community, tell me what is going to happen to the community?’ He would always talk about minority suppliers and dealers,” Gillum said.
“Rev Sullivan would always ask the right questions. When no one else in the room would ask that kind of question, Rev. Sullivan would. He made us more accountable and offered us another perspective.”
WOULD COMPANIES still accept the Sullivan perspective that focuses on the human conditions, the results of decisions made in corporate boardrooms?
“Well, I have a bias toward Rev. Sullivan’s view. But you can get that outside the boardroom too. But clearly having someone like that in the room does add another dimension to the discussion,” Gillum said.
Gillum said his decisions were respected because he had the ear of the company leadership and possessed a broad portfolio that wasn’t just pegged on diversity issues.
On the question of what makes a successful Black executive, Gillum said the individual has to be comfortable about who they are and also recognize that they didn’t get there by themself.
“There were a lot of variables that went into place in order for them to succeed. That helps. I think too often you do see executives — African Americans or whatever their background may be — who think that they got there by themselves and that’s really never the case. In the African-American tradition we’ve always reached back to help someone else along the way,” Gillum said. “I think a good board member or executive understands that is part of their obligation. Clearly the bottom line of the company is why they are there but that notion of giving back, reaching out is integral to their success in my view.”
With Gillum gone, GM will now be left with two high ranking Black executives, Ed Welburn, first African-American vice president for Global Design, and Kevin Williams North American vice president and general manager, Service and Parts Operations.
“None of us were confused today about who we are and where we came from. We do have that support. But each of us find ourselves in instances where we are the only ones in the room,” he said.
He would not dwell on his post retirement plans except to say that he is going to take a three-month vacation before deciding on what to do next. And if he decides to accept an offer from a corporation, it would not be another carmaker.
GM, he says, is here to stay after going through a restructuring process. His role has been spread across various departments for now and no successor has been named yet. He says diversity is needed more than ever.
Gillum credits his wife, Linda, son Aaron and daughter Bria for their support.
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