Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Flashback: A Tale of Two Different Worlds…that of a Patrician and a Racial Agitator…and How They Got Through a Long, Oracular Luncheon.

[Fifty years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

With an agreement ironed out…but no covenant (our position being that a covenant similar to that agreed to by God and the Israelites was not fitting for this occasion)…a luncheon meeting was set up to formalize good relations with the host to be Reverend Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH. The desire to host the session was a tribute to their good faith since for the first time, a company had spurned a formal treaty-signing with CEO and the charismatic black preacher…also for the first time, a company has spurned a serious demand that came from the charismatic preacher: that the image of Aunt Jemima be discarded. We won on these two major points. We conceded on others—namely that as a company we had much more to do in an effort to attain social justice. And PUSH testified that it had much more to do as well, by resolving to learn the elements of the free-market economy so that its representatives could better understand business economics and problems.

So it was a good deal. Reverend Ed Riddick was a significant factor in working with me to get the understanding…not put in writing but like the British unwritten constitution…put down firmly in our minds. Thereupon, he at PUSH and I at Quaker began the jobs of preparing our leaders for a significant first meeting. At Quaker, Bob Stuart wanted not just to know the details of the verbal agreement but wanted, understandably, to know who, as he said, using a Chicago vernacular, to know who were “the wheels” in the PUSH community so he could recognize them and comment on their work. At the same time, Ed Riddick was telling me that Jesse Jackson was very much interested in learning more about Quaker, including its products and subsidiaries so he could comment on them intelligently. Both Ed and I were enthused at the good faith from both parties.

So I filled him in on elements of the Quaker divisions—i.e. the Fisher-Price division that was really the Cadillac of children’s toys…and the Marx Toy Company, newly acquired, which made cheaper, more plastic and less expensive toys such as a plastic version of an Irish Mail that kids sat in and pushed with pedals to make it go—called “the Big Wheel.” He filled me in on the duties of the various leaders of PUSH, such as Reverend Willy Barrow, the only woman leader…himself…the Reverend Calvin Morris, a veteran pastor who had helped ordain Reverend Jackson…Tom Todd, a huge lawyer, a former prosecutor, a one-time assistant U. S. District Attorney…who was quite an orator and filled a role of second in command at PUSH.

So on the appointed day, Bob Stuart and I jumped in the Quaker limousine and drove to the South Side former Jewish synagogue that was the headquarters of Operation PUSH. On the way out there I gave him a list of those who were, to use his original formulation, “big wheels” in the civil rights community. At the same time, while they were waiting for us to arrive, Ed Riddick was filling in Jesse Jackson on the various divisions of our company and our products. Both wanted to be knowledgeable of the other’s turf.

In reflecting back on it from a distance of more than thirty-six years, I find that in his concern to know about us, Reverend Jackson was a far different man…perhaps more insecure…than he now appears, having been a national and international figure for so long and a former Democratic presidential candidate. Then he was relatively new to negotiations; he was primarily a Chicago figure. Certainly for our part, we were just as eager to get along with him and show a light-heartedness and affability. But inside all our stomachs, there was a tightening of apprehension that something would possibly go wrong or be misunderstood. I know this was the case with us and Ed Riddick told me later it was the case with them.

We arrived a bit early and luncheon was not ready to be served, so Reverend Jackson suggested to Bob Stuart that we hop in his car—with him driving—and take a spin about the neighborhood, where he would point out buildings and blocks of particular interest. So we did. As he swept around the corner and we cruised down the street, there was a kid pedaling like mad on one of our Marx toys, the Big Wheel. Now you can get a glimmer of wha happened. Bob Stuart had constantly wanted to be updated on the formation of the black hierarchy of PUSH which we cavalierly called ‘the Big Wheels.” Jesse Jackson wanted to show us that he was aware of our products, especially one that was so popular in his community, the “Big Wheel.”

So Jackson pulled the car over to the curb, pointed to the kid and said, “Look, there’s a Big Wheel!”

Bob Stuart’s immediate reaction was to say, “huh? Where?”

Jackson said: “Right there.”

Bob Stuart: “Who do you mean?”

Jackson: “The kid.”

Bob Stuart, repeating but not understanding, repeating slowly, “…er, the kid. The kid. What--?”

I wasn’t as fast on the trigger either and so it took me a few longer seconds to comprehend while the two…one a Princeton-Yale Law school CEO patrician…and the other the famed “country preacher” from South Carolina who was proud that he could identify one of our most famous products kept repeating…incredulous that Stuart couldn’t grasp the obvious, “right there, Bob—right there! The Big Wheel!” And Stuart saying, “who? Who, I say? The kid?”

The answer when it came was hysterically funny to me as all of us were trying to break the tension. Then we collapsed in laughter—all of us…Jesse Jackson…Bob Stuart…and I…as we understood the semantics at last.

The luncheon was a great success with Reverend Jackson at his best and Bob Stuart matching him with good humor, fun and warmth. When it was over Ed Riddick and I decided to get together and celebrate. As he wouldn’t depart from his self-prescribed vow from childhood on not to ever touch alcohol, I was reduced to toasting with him in 7-Up. But the fact that the negotiations went so well, made us lifelong friends. Later he was my guest at Harvard as a lecturer in my class as he knowledgably sketched the history of PUSH and his work.

Once the agreement was underway and being implemented, I turned to another project that involved race relations. That was the forthcoming congressional campaign in the 2nd district of Georgia…in a district 57 percent white…of a candidate whom I had met earlier when he was in Chicago…Andrew Young. He was determined to run in Georgia in the same year that George McGovern was running for president—a not-beloved figure in that state…in a largely white suburban Atlanta district…in an effort to become the first black Congressman elected from the deep south in more than a hundred years. How Quaker got involved in it and how I fashioneda lifelong friendship with this icon of the civil rights movement—all that next.

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