As TNJ celebrates its 2006 class of “25 Influential Black Women in Business,” I am compelled to reflect on two recent events, both having to do with Black women, that have given the African diaspora pause: the election in October of Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson as president of Liberia and the passing, in late January, of Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Two women an ocean apart, one signifying the beginning of a new era in Black women’s leadership, the other signifying the end of a different era in that leadership.
Sirleaf-Johnson is a descendant of the 13,000 or so freed slaves who left America in the 1800s and founded Liberia. She has been written into history as the first woman elected to the office of president in Africa. I discuss her a bit more in my “Africa Focus” column on page 50. King was a descendant of former slaves who sank deeper roots in America. She, too, has been written into history—as the woman who kept alive the memory of her world-famous husband and the principles for which he stood.
Whereas Rosa Parks was the mother of the civil rights movement, King was the “first lady” of the movement, John Robinson, president and CEO of the National Minority Business Council Inc., said, following the death of King. “As an organization of business owners of color, we are the primary beneficiaries of the tremendous efforts and sacrifices made by Dr. and Mrs. King,” he said.
Few would readily associate King with the blossoming of entrepreneurship in minority communities today because too few of us are aware of the call for “economic parity” that was as much a goal of the civil rights movement as civil rights itself. “…You cannot legislate goodness, nor pass a law to force someone to respect you. The only way to social justice in a capitalist country is through economic parity,” Dr. King said just before his death in 1968. When Coretta Scott King picked up his mantle, she also picked up his fight for economic parity.
“Mrs. King was a symbol in her own right of her husband’s struggle for economic equality, a struggle that meant access for minority entrepreneurs to the resources and contracts they needed for survival and growth,” says Gregory L. Reid, Esq., chairman of the National Minority Business Council’s board of the directors and managing director of the law firm Reid, Rodriguez & Rouse, LLP.
Today, the number of minority- and women-owned businesses is growing faster than the average growth for all businesses nationwide, and women-owned businesses are growing even faster.
In 1980, a group of women launched the National Women’s History Project to have Congress designate a celebration to recognize women’s historic achievements. Women’s History Month came into being seven months later. The goal was not to idealize women, but to ensure that information about the myriad ways women have changed America would be part of our children’s education. This year’s theme for the month, “Women: Builders of Communities & Dreams,” honors the spirit of possibility and hope set in motion by generations of women in their creation of communities and their encouragement of dreams.
Among those women are many of ours.
By Rosalind McLymont