Milton Irvin – “What Can Whitney M. Young Jr. Teach Businesses in the 21st Century?”

Milton Irvin, Managing Director, UBS Securities

Speech for the Wharton School’s Whitney M. Young, Jr. Memorial Conference, November 2004—“What Can Whitney M. Young Jr. Teach Businesses in the 21st Century?”

My Role:
Eleven years after I wrote his powerful speech to the National Black MBA Association, Mr. Irvin tracked me down and asked me to write for him again. He was speaking at the 31st anniversary of a conference he had helped to organize when he was a student at Wharton Business School in the 1970s. The conference was named after civil rights leader Whitney M. Young, Jr.—who was quite a speaker himself. I found a speech Mr. Young had given to the American Institute of Architects in 1968 and was so impressed with it that I used it as the backbone of this speech. (If you’d like to read Mr. Young’s speech, email me and I’ll send you a copy.) Here are three excerpts from the speech I wrote.

Opening Section:

I am very pleased to be here this afternoon. And I’m incredibly gratified to see the Conference is still going strong, into its fourth decade.

Fourth decade? That’s hard to imagine. I helped to start this conference back in 1973 when I was a student here at Wharton. And I have to tell you—time flies. It doesn’t feel like I’m into my “fourth decade” after Wharton, my “fourth decade” in the world of business.

However, on some days, it feels like my fortieth decade. Those are the days I think, “Didn’t we fight this battle 20 years ago? Why am I the only person of color in a meeting—why is that still going on? Or why am I playing golf with the only African American member of the club?” The more things change, the more they remain the same. Of course, at least in 2004, we’re on the golf course. Thirty years ago, we wouldn’t have been let through the door. But why are we still so scarce wherever business people congregate? Why do we still have such limited access to the halls of power?….

From the Close of the Speech:

Just by being real, you can make a difference. Whitney M. Young, Jr. did.

I’ve been quoting today from the remarkable speech he gave to the American Institute of Architects. He challenged the architects to engage the fight against racism with all of the tools that they had at their disposal as people and as professionals. And the speech had quite an effect. The American Institute of Architects established an award that they give out every year. The award is intended to—and I quote—“challenge the architectural profession to assume its responsibility toward current social issues.” The name of the prize is the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award.

When he spoke to the architects in 1968, Mr. Young ended his speech by quoting an ancient Greek scholar. And what that Greek scholar said two millennia ago, and what Mr. Young said four decades ago, is still relevant to the world we live in today. Mr. Young said, “An ancient Greek scholar was once asked to name when the Greeks would achieve victory in Athens. He replied, ‘We shall achieve victory in Athens and justice in Athens when those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are.’ And so it shall be with the problem of human rights in this country.”

If more people—and more companies—are indignant about injustice toward African Americans today, it’s because of our many brothers and sisters who have spoken out. I challenge all of you today to keep speaking out, keep holding your companies and communities accountable for how they treat African Americans. Keep the work and the legacy of Whitney M. Young, Jr. alive—not just for the few days that we gather here in Philadelphia each year—but every day of the year, everywhere in the world.