Teeth and Tongue Must Bite - The misalignment of service and justice
The cover story in the December 2003/January 2004 issue of The Network Journal featured Bruce Gordon, the man who shot a lightning bolt through civil rights circles when he resigned as president of the N.A.A.C.P. in March. Gordon resigned because of the “misalignment” between himself and the N.A.A.C.P. board of directors over how a 21st-century civil rights struggle should be waged.
When I interviewed him for our story, Gordon was president of Verizon Corp.’s Retail Markets Group, the biggest business ($25 billion in annual revenues) of the biggest phone company in the country. During our interview, he was unwavering about how he would contribute to moving the civil rights struggle forward.
To some degree, his parents influenced the form his contribution would take. Both were active in the civil rights movement, but they believed the world would look a lot different in their son’s generation than it did in theirs. Their guidance, plus his own assessment that corporate America had opened up to Blacks, steered Gordon away from a possible career in education but not from his commitment to the civil rights struggle. “My view was that corporate America, if properly navigated, could be another platform for civil rights change,” he said.
Gordon acted on that view. On the corporate platform, change meant moving African-Americans up the ranks. “Service,” whereby he would help prepare Blacks for those ranks, became his civil rights agenda. It was an agenda that ran headlong into an N.A.A.C.P. board committed to the advocacy of justice for Blacks.
Gordon was relentless in executing his own agenda. At Verizon, he was active in resource programs and organizations: the Accelerated Leadership Diversity program; the Consortium of Information Technology Executives, a group of African-American executives who helped lower-level Black employees succeed professionally; One Hundred Plus, another group of African-Americans at the director level and above that he nurtured; and the Developmental Roundtable for Upward Mobility (DRUM), a self-help, self-mentoring group of African-American men.
Beyond Verizon, he was a member of the Executive Leadership Council, a blue-chip organization of top African-American executives that trains high school and college students for corporate careers. He pushed his civil rights agenda even on the corporate boards on which he served. And corporate America, he told TNJ, did not disappoint him. “In terms of going forward into the next phase of civil rights, it has proven an excellent platform,” he said.
Why, then, would he deviate from his agenda when he retired from Verizon at the end of 2003? Imagine what he could do with such a mission as president of the venerable N.A.A.C.P.? But a year and a half of Gordon’s agenda of “service” was enough for the N.A.A.C.P. board.
The relationship now between Gordon and the N.A.A.C.P. board should not be acrimonious. Their distinct agendas are like teeth and tongue—one must bite the other at some point even though both are working for the advancement of the Black community.
My bet is that Gordon will surface again in academia. Coming from a family of educators, “I've got some unfinished business in terms of making a contribution in the education field,” he told me.
By Rosalind McLymont