Leo Morton left no doubt that his parents and the close-knit black community prepared him for the opportunities that the civil rights movement created for African-Americans like him.
By LEWIS W. DIUGUID
The Kansas City Star
Fifty years ago, he was age 17 in a segregated Birmingham, Ala., when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote A Letter From a Birmingham Jail and gave the I Have A Dream speech. Back then black families and the community took seriously the work to prepare each new generation for jobs that racism and discrimination had kept African-Americans from getting.
That lifted Morton as a young adult to firsts such as being the University of Missouri-Kansas Citys first black chancellor. He and his siblings grew up working in his dads upholstery business, where he learned leadership, sales, quality control, human resources and business skills.
Going to college was a no-brainer and so was fulfilling his goal of becoming an engineer.
Segregation limited opportunities, and the likelihood of police brutality was ever-present. But African-Americans gave each other a sense that achieving any goal was possible. Black youths had concrete role models of working, married black men taking care of their families, going to church and being good citizens.
You get through hard times by a vision of what can pull you through, Morton said. That gives you some focus in life. It gives you a vision beyond what youre living right now. You were fighting for something.
Morton is among African-American chief executives who've agreed to participate in this column series, which will run through August. It will assess the civil rights gains of the last 50 years and share insights into the next 50 years.
If you dont have a vision that drives you, compels you, almost anything that gets in front of you can derail you, Morton said. Thats what missing in the life of kids today.
That vision and what Morton called adaptive reuse and transferable leadership skills got him through college and on to careers of firsts at General Motors, Rust Engineering Co., Corning Glass, Bell Laboratories, AT&T Microelectronics and Aquila Inc.
The civil rights movement helped end legal segregation, giving blacks more freedoms.
However, segregation still exists, along with a crushing poverty that limits black childrens vision of whats possible. Morton said King would be encouraged that the nation has a black president but disappointed by the poverty, segregation and poor state of urban education.
Instead of more African-Americans filling the pipeline for highly placed jobs in government, universities, civic organizations, churches and corporations, disparities have trapped more in unemployment, underemployment and prisons.
Children must acquire the vision, as Morton did, that doing well in math would help them to become engineers. Having good reading skills by third grade will elevate them into college and any career.
Morton sees UMKC as part of the solution. The university can help bridge services offered by community groups to help get African-Americans back in college and the career pipeline in representative numbers and give youths a vision for whats possible.
Acting now would help fulfill Mortons vision: Fifty years from now, it would be wonderful if you wouldnt even think about having this kind of interview. It would be so commonplace that we have so many people of color in more significant positions that it would not be newsworthy.
But for that to happen families, government, businesses and community organizations will have to sense just as much of an urgency as King and others did and take corrective action now. The question is this: Can America still be a leader in the world if we dont solve this problem? Morton asked.
Right now the answer is no.
To reach Lewis W. Diuguid, call 816-234-4723 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.