The “Godfather” Calls a Sit-Down
1968. It was a very bad year, perhaps the worst of times in a nation rocked by political assassinations, urban riots, underground revolutionaries, and defiant protestors. Visionary leaders were violently killed: Martin Luther King, Jr., gunned down on a Memphis hotel balcony in April; Robert F. Kennedy shot in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen in June; black riots erupting in dozens of American cities following the killings. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago had been convulsed by rioting and confrontations in August as the city’s notorious head-bashing cops knocked heads outside the International Amphitheatre, ferociously beating down thousands of angry black and white protestors who were threatening to tear apart America as we knew it. A grim national report on the civil unrest, commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson, was released that year and warned that the country was in danger of moving toward two societies—one black, one white—separate and unequal.
Yet if 1968 seemed to be the worst of times, it also held out hope for some for better times, and I, for one, needed that. I had already suffered through my own miserable times, losing a college football scholarship to the University of New Mexico, flunking out of law school in Washington, DC, six years later, and finding myself, now at 28, back home at the St. Mary’s housing projects in the South Bronx, living with my mother and stepfather.
Like most blacks, I was furious over the assassinations of King and Kennedy, but I knew violence was not the answer to the many problems besetting us as a people. Money was, pure and simple. Not money for the sake of lavish spending or grand profiling, but money for the real good it can do in improving lives.
I cannot say it was money alone, though, that drove me to apply for a position with First National City Bank three years before. That year, 1965, I just needed something constructive to do—needed to feel I was back in somebody’s game. I had returned to New York in the fall, after a seven-year absence, having spent six years in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico and another nine months in Washington, DC, as a student in Georgetown University’s School of Law.
I washed out after the first year.
Devastated, I spent the summer working for an antipoverty program in DC before heading back home to New York. Still reeling from what I considered a colossal failure, I was too ashamed to tell anyone, not even my mother, I had flunked out of law school. In fact, I was so dislocated I actually rode the subway two or three times a week from the Bronx to Columbia University’s campus in upper Manhattan, where I would hang around the law school, pretending to still be a law student. I told my mother I had transferred from Georgetown to Columbia. This went on for weeks. How pitiful was that?
But nobody wants to dance with you at a pity party. Shortly after flunking out I called Howard Mathany, dean of men at the University of New Mexico, to confess the awful truth. The dean had been an early mentor while I was a student at the university, helping me to remain in school after I lost my scholarship. I stayed in touch with him when I left Albuquerque to go to Georgetown. And now I trusted this white man enough to call and pretty much spill my guts.
“Dean Mathany, I flunked out,” I blurted into the phone. “I guess I just don’t have what it takes to be a lawyer. I never saw myself as an intellectual heavyweight or anything, but—”
“C’mon, Ed!” Dean Mathany cut me off impatiently. “You’ve always had many interests, and you do have a master’s degree.” True. I had lost my football scholarship my freshman year, but was able to return to the university the next year through some string pulling and end up with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees six years later.
Dean Mathany casually mentioned that he had a friend who worked in personnel at First National City Bank (now Citibank) in New York. The bank was looking to hire talented minorities in its executive training program in New York City. “Maybe you should think about applying,” the dean gently suggested.
I realized this was Dean Mathany’s easy way of telling me that one setback did not mean I was without prospects. I still had skills. Failing law school did not mean I was a failure. It just meant I had not done well in a particular situation. That struck me. And I would continue to be struck throughout my life by all the people I would meet—people I admired and respected—who saw a winning prospect in me when I often could not see anything at all.
I was drowning in shame and self-doubt the day I called Dean Mathany to say I had washed out of law school, but he was not about to listen to any “po’ is me” riff. Instead, he threw out the life preserver of faith and affirmation by suggesting I think about applying for a position with First National City Bank.
Just a thought. But sometimes that’s all you need to turn around a life.
I applied for and got the job at First National City Bank, and three years later, in the fall of 1968, got the call that would transform my life. It was from Russell L. Goings, a vice president at the Shearson, Hammill and Company investment banking firm.
“Ed, I’m inviting a bunch of you young bloods to a meeting down here at headquarters,” he boomed over the phone. “I want you to come. It’s time we sit down with these guys here at Shearson and get them to put some money behind their liberal rhetoric.”
Then in his late thirties, Russ Goings, whom I would later come to think of as the Godfather of Essence, was a great hulking bear of a man—handsome, articulate, confident, imposing at six foot four, with a large, brash personality to match. He understood that the real battle for civil rights would be won not in the streets, but on the economic front of black entrepreneurship. He had played professional football for the Buffalo Bills, but as Shearson’s first black vice president, Russ knew the winning game in the late 1960s for young, educated American Negroes (as we were then called) was black capitalism, and he was in the forefront of getting Wall Street to aid in that effort.
I didn’t know any of the guys at the meeting Russ was holding that evening of November 8, 1968, but we were all pretty much alike. Young and black, tall, short, dark-skinned or light, we were smart and educated, professional, well employed, and had one thing in common: We wanted to be real players in the American game of business. We wanted to make a difference in the lives of our people—at least I did.
Russ, sitting at the head of the large conference table in one of Shearson’s meeting rooms at its Wall Street headquarters, was telling us that the most effective way to do that was to own our own businesses. This is why he had called the meeting, he said. He wanted to discuss business ideas and ways to raise capital to fund them.
“Now, I’m not talkin’ about no mom-and-pop operation you could fund with your Christmas Club savings accounts,” Russ thundered, leaning his large frame forward. “Let’s think big and bold. Come up with some business ideas I think these Wall Street boys will want to invest in, and I’ll guarantee you a meeting with them. Shearson will help you put together a business plan, identify funding sources, give you technical support, maybe even some seed money—anything you need to get a business going!”
While black militants were threatening armed revolution during the urban violence that marred the last half of the 1960s, black capitalists like Russ Goings were storming American boardrooms, telling white businessmen to open up access to capital if they wanted to make black peace. Russ was one of the big guns Wall Street had in its arsenal of weapons aimed at quelling black urban rage. For if anything defined America in 1968, it was all the exploding violence, among its black youth in particular, that had shaken the country to its racially charged roots.
What was clear by 1968 was just how enraged much of America’s black underclass really was. There was rage over police brutality in poor black neighborhoods, rage over poor schools in poor neighborhoods, race discrimination in job hiring, poor housing, inadequate social services. The hundreds of urban riots that followed the first one in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in 1965 had white America running scared by the start of 1968, the year political and social violence seemed to spiral out of control.
Even President Johnson looked a little scared on July 28, 1967, the day he announced he had commissioned a panel to investigate the causes of and possible remedies for the urban violence that was tearing up the cities. Headed by Otto Kerner, the governor of Illinois, the commission released its findings in February of 1968. The Kerner Report was a scathing, damning indictment that charged white racism with being the primary cause of urban violence. Among the remedies proposed were the creation of jobs, the building of new housing, and the hiring of more blacks in mainstream media to more accurately reflect and report on the country’s underserved black population.
The Kerner Report became the lightning rod for an assortment of social and economic programs following the rebellions by disaffected blacks in America’s cities. And black capitalists like Russell Goings expected Wall Street to play as major a role in leveling the playing field as any government-sponsored social programs.
“Black men don’t need a handout from business,” Russ liked to tell the white guys on Wall Street. “They need a hand up in the way of access to capital so they can start their own businesses.” Like the James Brown song said, “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door, I’ll get it myself.” Equal business opportunity. That’s what Russ was about when he called that fateful November meeting.
I first met Russ shortly after going to work for First National City Bank. He tried to hire me away. Russell Goings didn’t exactly run Shearson, Hammill, but he was arguably their corporate conscience, and knew how to work white corporate guilt the way a three-card-monte hustler could work Times Square tourists. And there was plenty of white business guilt being fired up in 1968 as America’s institutions scrambled to be a part of the solution to black civil unrest. Russ had even convinced Shearson to let him open a branch office of Shearson in Harlem, known as First Harlem Securities.
If young, educated black men such as myself had the opportunity to become business owners, we would be in a position to create jobs for our own people, to build our own better housing, and to turn around our own beleaguered communities. That was Russ’s idea, anyway.
“You need to think big and bold like those two fine young men down there in Mexico City,” Russ was saying, looking around the room at all of us. He was referring, of course, to the two black athletes who just three weeks before had raised a clench-fisted Black Power salute during the awards ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
Tommie Smith, 24, representing the United States in the 200-meter track and field event, had won the gold medal, setting a new world record, and John Carlos, 23, also representing the United States, had won the bronze. Standing on their respective podiums, they lowered their heads and gave the Black Power raised fist salute as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played and the American flag waved in the winners’ circle. Smith wore a black scarf to symbolize black pride, and Carlos wore a chain of beads to honor, he said, “those individuals that were lynched or killed that no one said a prayer for, [for] those who were thrown off the boats in the Middle Passage.” Both men were shoeless, wearing only black socks to highlight black poverty.
The gesture was defiant. The raised fist was daring. And it had the effect of an exploding Molotov cocktail being heard around the world.
“Man, I don’t care what anybody says, that shit took some guts,” one of the guys sitting at the table was saying.
“But check it,” said another. “Do you believe Carlos, with his dumb-ass self, left his gloves back at the Olympic Village?” A few of the guys snickered at that one. Smith and Carlos had planned to do the Black Power salute wearing black leather gloves if they won any of their events. But John Carlos had forgotten to bring his gloves. So Tommie Smith gave him his left glove to wear, which is why in all the photos of that defining, defiant moment, each man is wearing only one glove—Smith is raising a gloved right hand and Carlos is raising a gloved left hand. It was pretty funny. But the act itself was pretty damn heroic.
To me and the other men at the table, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were hardly dumb-ass. Bad-ass was more like it. They had set it off, not by torching a city, but by igniting black male pride. Standing on their winners’ box that day in Mexico City on October 16, 1968, they became, during a very bad year, the international symbol of the American black man at his personal best: athletically superior, politically conscious, and brave enough to raise the fist of Black Power in challenge to a racist system.
The American government may have been embarrassed, but we black men were just really proud. And one of my proudest moments was having the opportunity to tell Tommie Smith and John Carlos exactly that forty years later when I had the privilege of meeting them at the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008. After years of being ostracized because of their daring act in 1968, they had been invited by the Olympic Committee to attend the 2008 Beijing games as honored guests.
Russ was shrewd enough to understand the business implications of Smith and Carlos. Investing in bold black men with bold business ideas had become an attractive idea to the Wall Street players—the investment bankers and the venture capitalists who were looking to back new ideas with profit potential as well as the potential to do some social good. To be sure, bold black men who were also educated professionals were certainly less threatening than the ghetto boys who were burning down their own neighborhoods—or the athletes who were throwing a fist at the American flag. The smart white money would be on investing in black men who were not quite so angry, or at least not so up in your face with it. Goings knew this. He wanted us to think like the bold brothers Smith and Carlos were, but act like the polished professionals we also were.
I have often thought about the irony of that day. Here we were, twenty-five or so sharply dressed young black men in our midtwenties to early thirties—looking good in our wide-lapel suit jackets, bell-bottomed trousers, and platform shoes—having a sit-down on Wall Street called by a black man. We knew that there but for the grace of God went any one of us, because any one of us could just as easily have been one of those ghetto guys burning down their neighborhoods.
Russ was winding up his presentation: “Remember, fellas, the route to black capitalism runs through Wall Street, which leads directly to America’s financial temples—the investment banks, the commercial banks, the stock exchanges. This is where we’ve got to now be throwing down our buckets. Forget that forty acres and a mule bullshit. Ain’t none of you ever gonna be farmers! Wall Street represents the one American god in which we can all trust: money.”
Russell Goings wasn’t the only one preaching the gospel of black capitalism in 1968. The first true believer was Richard M. Nixon, elected president of the United States on November 5, 1968. It was Nixon who had coined the term Black Capitalism in April of 1968 while campaigning for the Republication nomination right after King’s assassination. Black Capitalism was the centerpiece of what Nixon was calling his Bridges to Human Dignity program, emphasizing black self-help through business development rather than continued dependency on government social programs.
I am one of the few people I know who would have voted for Nixon if I’d been old enough to vote when he ran for president the first time against John F. Kennedy in 1960. I was 20 that year, a year shy of the legal voting age of 21. For some reason I didn’t really trust Kennedy on civil rights. He seemed too old-line Boston, too rich, too Brahmin, which to me made him too disconnected from the issues affecting the lives of the country’s minority caste. Unless he was forced to, I didn’t think he would to do right by black people.
Richard Nixon, on the other hand, was no guilt-ridden liberal. He understood business. And, like Russ, by 1968 he recognized that the best way to help a disenfranchised minority class was to help turn it into an entrepreneur class. Almost as soon as he came into office, Nixon signed Executive Order 11458, establishing the Office of Minority Business Enterprise (OMBE) within the Department of Commerce.
Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans would give the order teeth and bite with the creation of MESBIC (the Minority Enterprise Small Business Investment Corporation), which became the venture capital arm of the government for minority businesses. For the first time in our history, small black businesses had access to capital through a government program mandated specifically for them. And we had Richard Nixon to thank for that.
Nixon also named Robert C. Weaver to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the first Negro ever appointed to a cabinet position. And Arthur Fletcher, a Negro in the Labor Department, was the deputy secretary who almost single-handedly administered the Philadelphia Plan, a government program aimed at giving more federal contracts to minority construction firms. People used to think I was crazy when I would say Richard Nixon was the real father of affirmative action.
It was the Godfather, however, who was now pledging that Shearson was on board to assist with any solid business ideas we came up with during the meeting. To prove it, Russ introduced Michael Victory, Shearson, Hammill and Co.’s number two guy—an executive vice president, partner, and heir apparent to the number one spot. For purposes of at this meeting, Michael Victory was apparently also Russell Goings’s wingman.
Victory was as soft-spoken as Russ was loud. He promised that Shearson would give us all the help we needed to get a business going—advice, support, seed money, access to capital. “Just come up with a good business idea,” he said with the slightest trace of a Cockney accent. I honestly do not remember any of the ideas that were getting tossed around, but I do remember Victory throwing out a “for instance” that grabbed my attention. “I would think there could be a need for a Negro women’s magazine, for instance,” he said offhandedly.
A hand shot up: “I have an idea for a magazine for Negro women,” said a light-skinned brother with green eyes who was sitting across the table from me. He told the story of seeing his mother in the living room when he was a kid, thumbing through a women’s magazine, looking at all the photos of white women, and then overhearing her mutter, “I wonder why someone can’t do a magazine for Negro women.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Russ said. A few more ideas were floated, then at the end of the meeting Russ broke us up into smaller discussion groups. “If a particular idea interests you, then get with the gentleman who presented it,” he told us.
“Jonathan, you might want to talk to Ed Lewis over there,” Russ suddenly said, gesturing to me as he talked to the brother with the magazine idea. “Ed knows something about finance.”
Besides me, there were two other men that evening whose imagination had been captured by a mother wondering, Why can’t someone start a magazine for Negro women? We pulled our chairs up to talk with Jonathan, her son.
“Why can’t we start a magazine for Negro women?”
“You heard Russ. Not a bad idea.”
“In fact, it might be a great idea.”
“This could be a serious moneymaker.”
We introduced ourselves, talked some more, exchanged business cards. Russ called a second meeting, and at this one another guy joined with the four of us who had met at that initial meeting. We talked some more. Over the next few months four of us from the original group of five would become business partners. It was the first step in launching a magazine for Negro women that would become bigger than anything we could have ever imagined as 1968, a very bad year, drew to a close.
Revue de presse
“Ed Lewis tells it like it is in The Man from Essence, a great romp about the amazing years in the life of a cultural touchstone, Essence magazine. He delivers a juicy story that captures the euphoria of the hard work required to win against the odds and be the "last man standing." Bravo!” (Benilde Little, author of Good Hair)
“Ed Lewis invites us on the journey of a lifetime, and shows us how persistence, resilience and plain old-fashioned grit are still the keys to achieving the American Dream.” (Richard D. Parsons)