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Of Michael K. Powell
Federal Communications Commission

The Development Roundtable for Upward Mobility
Commemorating the Birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Washington, D.C.
January 14, 1999

"The Civil Rights Insider: Carrying Out the Legacy of Dr. King"


Good morning. I often begin speeches by saying how honored I am to be here. To tell you the truth, most of the time it is just a really good way to begin a speech. However, I must say with all sincerity that I am truly honored to be with you today to commemorate the memory of a man of great moral courage whose efforts made it possible for us to be where we are—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Moral courage, like that exhibited by Dr. King, is rare because it requires a willingness to walk away from prestige, from one’s livelihood and, in extreme cases, from one’s life. I remain in awe at his willingness to do so.

I am honored, as well, because this is the first time that I have had the opportunity in my life to speak publicly on how Dr. King and his teachings have touched me and shaped my approach to my life and to my career.

I am a fairly young man, and thus did not participate personally in the great civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I did not march across the E. Petus Bridge from Montgomery to Selma. I never experienced the sting on my back from a firehose being wielded by someone who hated me just because of my color. I did not suffer the bite of a police dog, commanded by a public servant who was supposedly sworn to protect. I was too young to participate in the struggle.

But, I was in the middle of it all. You see, I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. And, as I lay in my crib, all around me the battle raged. It was the year of the lunch counter sit-ins. It was the year that Dr. King was arrested and wrote his moving "Letter From The Birmingham Jail." It was the year that I was baptized in church, and the same year four little girls were murdered in church when racists sunk to a new low, bombing a temple of God. It was the place where Eugene "Bull" Connor, the Director of Public Safety, was the greatest threat to a black person’s health. It was George Wallace’s Alabama, a state for which he pledged as governor "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"

But, it was also the year that Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. On those steps, he declared, "I have a dream," giving my parents hope that their dreams for themselves and for their children would come true.

So, you see, as I rested safe in my mother’s arms, my future was being determined by the struggle on the streets. Would I grow up in an un-segregated world? Would my vote matter? Would I have a real opportunity to become whoever I wished in America? Because of Dr. King’s efforts, and those of others, the answer would be yes. And, here I am, a FCC Commissioner. And, there you all are, accomplished professionals engaged in the most exciting industry in its most exciting time. Thank you, Dr. King.

As products of his moral courage, I feel strongly that we owe Dr. King and his legacy a contribution. What can we do in our daily lives to carry forward his vision? How do we go "boldly forward to the dream?" As successful black professionals, we often feel the pulling need to contribute to the causes of our community and to fight for racial parity and equal opportunity. That is, if you are like me, you wrestle with how to be a civil rights leader in this era. This is not an easy question, for the struggle has become grayer, not defined any longer by the bright and insidious lines of legal segregation. There are few marches to join, lunch counters to sit in, or freedom buses to ride in this day and age. And, because we do have opportunities once denied us, we also have our precious time consumed by the daily efforts of our demanding jobs and family.

You can make a very meaningful difference, however, by exploiting the professional opportunity that Dr. King and the struggle gave to you. Your contribution may be different in that it will come not from the outside looking in, but from the inside looking around, up and down. We each are civil rights insiders.

I like to think of myself as a guerilla fighter in the struggle for racial opportunity. I do my best work from within the system, rather than attacking it from the outside. I use my professional skill and talents to show all Americans that a black man cannot only be a Commissioner of the FCC, but can be one of the best Commissioners the FCC has ever seen. I do not know if I will achieve that legacy, but I will die trying, in part, because I feel the calling of Dr. King’s words to show the world that my color is irrelevant—that black men and women can serve admirably in positions of responsibility, and that white Americans have nothing to fear by letting us inside the inner circles of political and economic power. To paraphrase the stirring words of the good doctor, I wish to be judged not by the color of my skin, but by the content of my character.

These words of Dr. King have long been interpreted as a message to white America to see us as human beings and to look past our color. But, we should hear another message in these words. They command us, as well, not to let our color define our accomplishments, but to let our accomplishments show the world our true character, ability, and principle. I will not be judged as a good minority this or that. I want to be judged the best period! We have a responsibility not to let America cast us as good affirmative action choices—to place racial limits, qualifiers, parameters and provisos on our accomplishments.

I have been the product of affirmative action, as has everyone in this room. There is nothing wrong with that. But, affirmative action is only a chance, an opportunity, a shot. I say, whatever your reason for letting me on your playing field, I will take that opportunity to show that I can not only play but can beat you at your game. I have no interest, whatsoever, in being given the benevolent opportunity to play on the high school field with other qualified minorities in the consolation game.

We are all fortunate to find ourselves working in the field of communications. The communications revolution is a profound shift to a new economic era, equal in its importance to the agricultural and industrial revolutions. It will bring, as those periods did, new opportunities for professional achievement, for prosperity, for education, and for economic power. Indeed, the communications revolution will change the way we communicate, which, in turn, changes the way we interact.

This is a real opportunity for us. In fact, it is the first opportunity our people have had ever. We were picking cotton under the crack of a whip during the agricultural revolution, and we were legally segregated from whites and opportunity during the industrial revolution. But we are poised to be a meaningful participant in this one. We must grab that chance and show the world the content of our character. We must educate our children to get the skills to catch this wave. We must encourage bright minds coming out of college and graduate school to take jobs in this industry. And, those of us that are already here must be civil right leaders of a different sort. We must become civil rights insiders, breaking down barriers and forging new paths within the system for other generations to travel. Let me share with you a few points that I live by as a civil rights insider and recommend them to you as guiding principles for your careers.


1. It's Not Fair, Now Get Over It

Do not expect the insider's game we play to be fair. Make no mistake about it, a black professional must be better than his white counterpart to get the same degree of recognition. That is just the way it is, now get over it. We can complain or curse that fact, but that will not push it aside. We cannot let the fact that the bar is high, deter us from attempting the jump. I take this higher standard as a challenge. You may have a higher bar for me because of my color than you have for yourself, but it does not matter because the bar I set for myself will always be higher. I am not interested in fighting over mediocrity. I gladly concede that field to you.

We need to strive to be the very best we can. We cannot aspire to standards set for us by institutions, we must set our own that exceed their expectations if we are to tear down interior walls. We want even the most racially enlightened CEO to be impressed. We cannot demand that we be judged simply by the content of our character, we must prove the worthiness of our character. That is what a civil rights insider does—blazes a path for others to follow. Not by his protestations of fairness, but by the shear force of his example and the legacy he leaves. I live by a simple credo taught to me by my father: "I am black, and I know it, but I will make my race someone else’s problem." I refuse to let my race be a weight around my ankles, hobbling my progress. To beat me with the weapon of racial inferiority, you will have to discriminate baldly against me—visibly, openly, and blatantly—for I will not cower under a cloud of doubt formed by those who engage in subtle racism. Take control of your world. Marcus Garvey once said it well:

"Few of us can understand what it takes to make a man—the man who will never say die; the man who will never give up; the man who will never depend on others to do for him what he ought to do for himself. The man who will not blame fate for his condition; but the man who will go out and make conditions to suit himself."

2. Lead By Example

Point two: Leadership is achieved not by word, but by deed. Subordinates and peers do not care what we are (e.g., Director, Manager, President or General), they pay attention to who we are in deciding whether to follow. We cannot pay lip service to our capabilities, we must demonstrate them to our colleagues and the outside world. How does one bear the responsibility of leadership? First, we must spend every moment of our lives preparing to take advantage of opportunities that will present themselves. I believe that opportunity knocks for everyone, but most people do not have their bags packed when the door opens. Keep your bags packed. Constantly, educate yourselves. Expand your understanding. Practice the skills you need for advancement. And, most importantly, do not shrink from challenges. It is the only way to reach higher levels.

Second, we must conduct ourselves morally and abide by the highest of values and uncompromising principles. Dr. King once said, "[t]he most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but with no morals. We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education." This is not just some haughty ideal. Let me clue you in, if you are not already. As black professionals, we are watched and scrutinized more carefully than others. There are those who look for us to slip up, fall off the path, make a mistake. Too many folks, will be all too happy to watch some character flaw or moral compromise be your undoing. Do not make it so easy for them by walking into this trap. Do not even play close to the line. We all have seen, too often, black men and women who achieve great professional success, only to be struck low by some petty indiscretion. Do not let that happen to you. Be a person of unassailable honor.

Third, show you have the acumen to lead and represent the views not just of black men and women, but of all men and women under your charge. You must take care to be a manager, director, commissioner, and leader to all under your leadership. Do not be the black manager. You do no one any favors by being perceived as someone who dedicates most of his time to minority concerns, while neglecting other duties and responsibilities that come with the office. You may feel you are making a difference, but you are marginalizing yourself and will slowly be compartmentalized by those who judge your actions.

3. Be An Ambassador For Your Race

Now, with all due respect, we need to help white America a bit. Because we have not had the same professional opportunities over the years it is common for you to find that you are the only black professional in your organization. That undoubtedly causes some anxiety on your part. But, it also means that you are working with people who in all likelihood have had little professional experience with a black professional and may, themselves, be anxious about how to interact with you. Now, I know many of us want to say it is easy, "just treat us the same way you do everybody else," and that is true. But there often are subtle and important differences in our experiences and cultures that can lead to misunderstanding, confusion, and even resentment. We must try not to take umbrage at this misunderstanding, but should instead reach out and help our colleagues understand the differences and sensitivities.

Similarly, we should see these situations as an opportunity to engage in dialogue with white colleagues about the challenges we face and the continuing indignity that comes with being a minority in America, no matter how subtle it may be. I have many friends who are not bigots or racists yet who do not appreciate the difficulties that remain after the great Civil Rights struggle. My friends are often shocked to hear stories of people crossing the street to get out of my path as I approach, or jump out of an elevator as I enter, or being overlooked in stores, particularly when dressed in jeans and a baseball cap. We must share these experiences with them when we can.

My same friends do not always comprehend the continuing need for something akin to affirmative action. They are often perplexed or angry at policies that offer us opportunity, but at the expense of a white individual who personally may never have engaged in a racist act. They see confusing messages from our own communities, including a fair amount of what they would view as racial hostility towards them, and our own tendency to segregate. The racial questions that linger in the minds of our white colleagues are not irrational. We should answer them, soberly and honestly, whenever we get a chance.

We may resent having to address such questions. We may tire of having to serve as racial ambassador all the time—"race fatigue" as Shelby Steele has labeled it. But understand this, if you do not flush out and answer these questions, those who have them will provide their own answers, uninformed by your experience and insensitive to your daily plight. Understand, too, that it is too easy for them to lead their lives quite successfully and comfortably without exploring racial questions in depth and without taking any responsibility. It is not so simple for us. We must succeed in bringing greater understanding to the masses if we want to advance a richer future for our children. We cannot afford to let our white colleagues disengage and walk away without a deeper understanding of us and the challenges we face.

4. Act Like You Belong Here, But Do It With Grace

I too often see black professionals that, despite their abilities, reveal a sense of insecurity. They lack confidence, or are kept on their heels by subtle cues of inferiority sent out from a competitive co-worker wishing to get ahead. Do not fall for this trick. Act confident and self-assured. Show that you are at peace with yourself and your responsibilities. Be unflappable.

This is not to say you will not be filled with anxiety, that you will not have some degree of insecurity, that you will not feel stress. My lesson, however, is to stress somewhere else. Nurture an inner circle of friends in whom you can confide and let down to. But, do not show weakness in the workplace. Do not spill blood into the water, because the sharks are waiting and are all too eager to make a quick snack of you.

Be confident yes, but cocky no. Arrogance is confidence without grace and there are few characteristics people hate and resent more. How you wear your ability and how you treat others—those above you, below you and the side of you—will make the difference between success and failure. The greatest threat to you are those things you do not see coming. You cannot be every where all the time and you cannot possibly do everything right. If you have taken the time to care for others, however, they will pick up the pieces (often quietly) that unknowingly dropped.

Finally, do not use your race as a weapon. For years, the Bull Connors of the world used race against us, do not use it against them. Do not wield the weapon of racial guilt, or push your race as a credential for advancement. These tactics may work for a time, but they are talking about you, and steadily putting new blocks in the glass ceiling.

5. Take Wisdom From Unconventional Places

Take wisdom from the small things in life—the unconventional. Everyone around you fights to be at the feet of the boss, to pick up his kernels of wisdom and advice. However, that is not the only place to learn and often is not even the best place to find wisdom. Learn from your subordinates, from your children, from the janitor, from your barber, from your administrative staff. You would be amazed what they see and what they know. And, the line you have to wait in is a lot shorter.

Let me tell you about a mentor I once had. His name was John and he was the shoeshine guy in my building when I was practicing law. I started going to see John and he would always talk endlessly. He seemed to see the whole world in parables about shoes. As far as I could tell, all of life’s lessons could be boiled down to polish, edging, brushes, shine rags and, if you were good, a little secret formula in a nondescript bottle. I rarely understood everything John would say, but we nevertheless always had a lively conversation.

He used to always talk about the people he would see passing through the posh building in which I worked. He used to say to me constantly that it was a disgrace that all these high-powered folks would stroll through with tailored suits and Coach leather briefcases, but when you looked down their shoes were a mess. He would constantly say to me that I looked good, too, but I really had to keep my shoes in tiptop shape. Every time I saw him he would make this point. I thought he was just trying to build business, but then it dawned on me that he was saying much more. He was saying that he was very proud to see a black professional, like myself, holding his own with the likes of the others he saw. But, he was warning me, teaching me, that I had to be a little bit better in order to compete with these folks—I had to keep my shoes shined. John was so right, and I anxiously went down to see him every chance I got, to get a little more insight into success from the shoe shine man.

6. Forge New Paths

Do not be content to simply get along, and to follow the well-worn path to a pension and the gold watch. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but just know that real success and advancement come from doing something different than it has ever been done before. You owe it to yourself and Dr. King to try to blaze new paths.

Building a better mousetrap will also make you unique among your peers. Del Lewis, the successful black executive, once listed his rules for success. One was that you have to have a uniqueness that sets you apart from the crowd. Charles Kendall Adams eloquently made this same point:

"No one ever attains very eminent success by simply doing what is required of him. It is the amount and excellence of what is over and above the required that determines the greatness of ultimate distinction."

Not everyone is cut out to be a trailblazer and that is fine. Dr. King himself acknowledged that "the hope of the world is still in the dedicated minorities. The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific, and religious freedom have always been in the minority." But, I submit that as a tribute to Dr. King who blazed trails for us, we should spend our lives thinking about being entrepreneurs. Looking for ways to succeed through our own unique contribution. At a minimum, live by what I call my mother’s motto, which is to "leave every place a little better than you found it."

7. Mentor And Network

Point seven: Do not sit back waiting for someone to form a mentor program and assign you a mentee before you start mentoring. Hunt prospects down. When you meet a young man or women of promise, grab them by the ear, if necessary, and teach them what you have learned. Conveying your experiences is more important than running around opening doors for them before they are ready. Elie Wiesel once said the "failure to convey an experience is to betray it." Putting folks in a position to fail is not helping them at all. Help them fix their shortcomings, their weaknesses, help them hone their talents. And, most importantly, do not be soft. Demand more from them than you would others. If you send them into battle well prepared, victory will be theirs and you can then bask in their glory.

Network, network, network! Build relationships that can offer support, provide opportunity, provide counsel and advice, and, perhaps most importantly, that can slap you back in your place when you get a bit too high on yourself. Remember, people with large rolodexes run the world.

8. Be A Patriot

Be a patriot. Love your country and what it stands for. This nation has terrible faults, but it is still the best nation to ever reign. This is our home. It is just as much our "sweet land of liberty" as anyone else's, even if we did not all arrive on her shores by our own volition. For all its wrinkles, it is still the greatest place of opportunity, promise and of ideals. Your challenge is to make America live up to her ideals.

Dr. King once explained that he took his stand, "because of my love for America and the sublime principles of liberty and equality on which she is founded." Well said.


So, go forth civil rights insiders and make a difference each day. Your contributions need not be grand. They need not bring congratulatory plaques and ribbons. They need only be persistent and concerted. Every day set the example. Mentor, forge new paths, love your country, and do it all with confidence and grace. Through all of this you can build on Dr. King's efforts and improve upon them.

President Reagan said it beautifully on the occasion of the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday:

The majesty of his message, the dignity of his bearing, and the righteousness of his cause are a lasting legacy. In a few short years, he changed America for all time.

Following his example, we can too.

Thank you for the honor of being here.