I understand how Alabama developed.
Mind you, an understanding is not the same as an endorsement, but an understanding is a powerful start nonetheless. An insightful 'understandng' of something, can in fact represent a new baseline for the possible empowering of generations to come. This is my aim. A positive shift, for Alabama. All of Alabama.
There is no accident that most early 19th century millionaires in America were literally headquartered or situated in the Deep South, importantly Mississippi and Alabama. I am not talking about some millionaires, or even a good many. I am talking about America’s vast majority of millionaires in the 19th century, could be found centered in the slave states. Even more instructive, these millionaires were largely located in the plantation mansions that dotted the Mississippi River.
For me, the untold story of the Deep South is not so much the devastating inhumanity of man to man that was slavery itself, but moreso the overwhelming economic benefits associated with the so-called ‘free labor,’ that the horrors of slavery provided.
Africa and African’s expertise in all things agriculture, synced up almost perfectly with the 17th century economic GDP bumper crop in the Western Hemisphere: the emergence of the agricultural age.
The modern world has undergone four major economic booms over the last 200 years; the agricultural age, the industrial age, the technology age, and what we know now to be the information age.
The important thing to note here is that because of the so-called ’innovation of that day, the strategic advantage, and the economic benefits of the business plan called slavery,’ made the Deep South, and places like Alabama, effectively the economic Silicon Valley of the 18th and 19th century, as noted by Imara Jones in Color Lines.
And for a long time, this oppressive economic model actually worked, so to speak, in the Deep South. It even heavily effected America’s politics and public policy over more than a century.
And while the so-called ‘benefits of slavery’ continued well into the industrial revolution, today one thing is obvious — this strategic economic decision by Deep Southern states leaders back then, severely handicaps the region and her prosperity prospects today. Here are but a few of these historical challenges, brought forward to today:
There was no incentive to educate and empower a broad segment of the population, white or black. The first true public school in the Deep South came 200 years after the first public school in the north.
There was no system in place to provide or encourage deep and rich levels of professional expertise, for the masses.
There was no push for the broadest range of small business ownership and entrepreneurs, creating and introducing new things. In other words, there was no broadbased push to 'integrate the money,' to quote my mentor and friend Ambassador Andrew Young.
There was no legacy of inclusion, or economic empowerment for all, or for a myriad of reasons -- to involve and engage the region with the rest of a changing world. For a very long time, everything 'seemed' to be just fine in the traditional south.
Things are not 'fine' any more. This past has indeed hurt the state. Not just her Black residents, but everyone. But the wonderful thing about life and our interconnected lives, is God seems to love 'second chances.' Furthermore, science proves that rainbows only follow storms. You cannot have a rainbow without a storm first.
Leaders I’ve met in the Alabama of today, at the very least articulate a bold new vision: a desire for the region and state, that involves more economic inclusion for all. And beyond the fact that I register an authenticity in this desire, by many of today's top leaders in the state, it actually makes good business sense that they do this also. And that spells win/win.
In centuries past economic exclusion, segregation of access and opportunity, and a repressive hoarding of jobs and knowledge -- rich neighbor from poor neighbor, seemed at the time like a great way to lock in economic prosperity for those who 'had.' It was short sighted and it was wrong, but it looked appealing at the time. But today, everything is different.
Alabama’s competition for continued wealth today, for jobs today, and future prosperity tomorrow, will not come from poor and uneducated black and brown people within the state. It will come from those now living in China, India, Africa, and other emerging market regions of the world. Individuals and countries that want to take America’s place in a new world. This is the new global competitive landscape.
God really does have a sense of humor.
The same place that profited from holding certain people back, now will only benefit if it can get everyone — and I do mean everyone in the state — rowing in the same boat of future economic growth and prosperity.
As my friend Ron Kirk once said, "you can take no pleasure from the fact, that there is a hole in my end, of our boat."
For the first time since the days of Alabama’s settlement by French and Western European settlers, those that call Alabama home will need to rely on each other. But unlike that period of European settlement, when indigenous Native American Indians might have been considered expendable, today literally everyone counts in and for Alabama's future. Everyone's economic energy today matters in Alabama.
I came to Birmingham, Alabama to launch the first wave of our silver rights movement work, featuring Project 5117, because I believe that Alabama has more good years ahead of it than behind it. A chance, also, to positively rewrite an important piece of her history along the way. The part rooted in both human dignity, and economic prosperity for all. Uplift. Fairness.
Abnd Alabama gets to now use a natural gift as well. Her perchant for self-determination. The new defintion of freedom, I have said, is self-determination.
And so, I commend here the state’s only Fortune 500 corporations, Regions Bank, and it’s CEO, Grayson Hall, along with Protective Life Insurance CEO, Johnny Johns. I commend them for supporting our good work on the ground in Birmingham, Alabama, when they didn't have to.
I commend them also for standing with me when we unveiled our bold future plans to an interested public. Not to be understated, they also used some of their relationship capital to open other important doors, socializing me and our good works amongst other key leaders there. I commend them for publicly standing for the good thing.
This last piece — the CEO’s of both the largest bank and the largest insurance company in the state of Alabama, standing for a bold and broad based financial inclusion and economic empowerment plan for all — sends a positive, possibly even an inspiring message, for the collective future.
Possibly, just possibly, this is not any longer, your grandmother’s Alabama. We will see.
John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), and is the only 2010-2012 bestselling business author in America who is also African-American. His newest book, due out May, 2014, is HOW THE POOR CAN SAVE CAPITALISM, and will be published byBerrett Koehler Publishing).