TOM JONES: "My homemade war club studded with nails dangled from my belt hitting my right thigh. There was also a long butcher knife tucked into my waistband. This is not what I had expected from college, not at all. Someone down the darkened hall coughed, and I picked up my rifle by its strap and slung it across my shoulder. Guns, knives, the two-day standoff with the university authorities, I hadn't really slept in 40 hours.
"And now, it was morning again. I was 19 years old. I stood near the ground floor, rear entrance of Willard Straight Hall, the five-story student union building on Cornell University's campus. The electricity had been turned off, but the white light of a cold overcast April day shone in through the tall windows.
"Outside, dozens of police waited and hundreds more armed sheriffs, as many as 400 we had heard, were amassed downtown, ready to move in on us. The rumors were nonstop. We couldn't know for sure what was true and what was a lie, a fantasy or a hysterical guess. Below circling the building was a growing gaggle of reporters from local and national newspapers. My mind raced to put the situation into perspective.
"If we are attacked by either those police or by more vigilantes, I'll fight, I decided. That will make for some surprising news. Parents Weekend 1969, dozens of armed black students at an Ivy League school, fighting for educational relevance, giving their lives just to have black history and culture claim its rightful place in the curriculum.
"I thought I might be killed if we fought, but I wasn't afraid. In fact, the idea of my own death, as I stood there not knowing what would happen next, struck me as a sacrifice I had to be willing to make. Hadn't I often mused that if I had been born in slavery, I would have tried to start a slave rebellion. Or if I had been born in 1845, I would have tried to join the colored troops in the Union Army to fight for my freedom on civil war battlefields in the face of deadly cannon and rifle fire.
"If I had been born in 1925, I would have wanted to fight on the battlefields of World War II against the Nazis. Now, since I was the prime age for it, I might soon be drafted into the US Army to join other young black soldiers who were dying in disproportionate numbers on battlefields in Vietnam.
"But it was more than a romantic daydream. The idea of my own death right there on campus may be right in this big cold building. Just 14 months earlier, 30 unarmed black students had been shot by police during a demonstration at South Carolina State University. And three of them had died of their wounds. Just two years earlier in what was called "the long hot summer there," were race riots, also called "armed uprisings" in over 100 US cities, with hundreds of people killed and thousands injured.
"The previous 12 months witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the bloody Chicago confrontation at the Democratic National Convention, and riots in numerous American cities, including Washington DC, where Marines with machine guns were positioned on the steps of the United States Capitol building.
"In 1969, I lived in a violent world, so I was comforted by the thought that at least I was choosing my own cause, and it was a good and just cause. The fight for black freedom and equality in America had already claimed many worthy lives and would undoubtedly claim many more. I was fully committed to the fight."
That was an excerpt from my autobiography From Willard Straight to Wall Street, published recently by Cornell University Press. 50 years ago, I was an angry young man in my senior year at Cornell University. Mentally and emotionally, I was prepared to be one of those African-Americans who would meet my destiny in a struggle against oppression and injustice that was much larger than any one of us and even much larger than all of us. I thought we were the generation fingered by history to draw the line on America's ill treatment of its black population. It had to stop with us in our time.
As I reflect from the perspective of 50 years on the events at Cornell University in April 1969, I feel both regret and pride. I have regrets regarding the individual toll of those events. I'm sorry at the individual level of the people who were hurt . That includes black students who were traumatized; President Perkins, who became the scapegoat for the wrath of angry trustees, faculty, and alumni; and professors and their families, who were frightened by my angry rhetoric and the specter of armed students on campus.
But I'm not sorry at the institutional level, the broadest of which is the events at Cornell and the context of the racial discrimination, and oppression, and violence against African-Americans, which was common in America at that time. I am proud that we black students armed ourselves after vigilantes intruded into our occupation of Willard's Straight Hall, thereby stating, in effect, we are the generation of African-Americans who will not be intimidated by vigilantes.
The lesson here is that some life situations do not lend themselves to simplistic judgments of who was right or wrong. Sometimes it's not either right or wrong. It's both. I was right in April, 1969, because our cause was just in fighting a racist society. But I was also wrong because my tactics caused harm to some individuals. I have wrestled my entire adult life with this moral ambiguity of April 1969 at Cornell University.
We should remember that the post-Civil War reconstruction years in America were shaped by violent white vigilantes who organized under the Ku Klux Klan banner to terrorize and intimidate emancipated African-Americans who attempted to exercise their voting rights and other civil rights. We should remember that, 50 years ago, America was still engaged in an unresolved battle to secure equal treatment for black Americans in public accommodations, employment, housing, voting, and other civil rights.
De jure segregation was enshrined in the law and many states. And de facto institutional discrimination was the social norm throughout America. The petty discrimination of being denied access to public facilities was intended to dehumanize African-Americans and to proclaim every day that we were different and inferior. The systemic institutional denial of economic opportunities ensured that African-Americans remained poor and powerless.
Each previous decade of American history was more brutal in its treatment of the black population. That's why I'm proud that my colleagues and I had the courage to say that the oppression and intimidation of African-Americans would stop with our generation, and we were prepared to fight about it.
The purpose of reciting this history is not just to remind us of where we have been, but also to focus on how far we have come. Historical reflection seems to make an undeniable case that African-Americans, other minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community have widespread educational, economic, and social opportunities today, which are unprecedented in American history.
Does this mean that America has overcome its historical problems? Of course not. The legacy of hundreds of years of slavery and the related physical and psychological barbarity against African-Americans created a scale of human misery and disfunctionality which cannot be reversed or healed in just 50 years.
But as America moving in the direction of civic equality and equal opportunity, unequivocally yes. This in no way diminishes the important work that Black Lives Matter and other groups do today to bring attention to ongoing police and vigilante violence against African-Americans and widespread poverty among African-Americans.
But we should acknowledge and celebrate the truth that, for every incident of racial violence against African-Americans which occurs today, the frequency of such incidents was proportionately 50 times greater 50 years ago and 100 times greater 100 years ago. We should acknowledge and celebrate the truth that many millions of African-Americans have lifted themselves out of poverty, middle class, and even higher.
We should acknowledge and celebrate the truth that de jure discrimination against African-Americans is no longer enshrined in American law or the judicial system. So even as I am acutely aware of how far we have yet to go, I am enormously thankful for how far America has come in the past 50 years. I hope America continues this progress and becomes a country which respects and celebrates our diversity within the context of overarching bonds of community.
My life has spanned a unique historical period in America, and I have an unusual range of experiences. My youth in the 1950s and 1960s was at the height of the civil rights movement against America's systemic racism and also the black power movement, which was about black pride and self-determination. I was part of those movements during my Cornell years.
Then, as a young adult, I was one of the first wave of African Americans seeking to climb the ladder in corporate America, and I experienced the obstacles firsthand. As a mature adult and seasoned professional, I was one of the first African-Americans to reach the top of the corporate ladder. My life journey also gave me a front row seat to important historical events, such as the 911 terrorist attack at World Trade Center, where the first plane in flew just a few hundred feet over my office on the top floor of 7 World Trade Center.
And I watched the people jumping out of One World Trade Center and their bodies falling onto the pavement. And I was involved in the early stages of the 2007 mortgage crisis at Freddie Mac and I witnessed the 2008 collapse and subsequent government bailout of Citigroup. My life also encompasses a 54-year association with Cornell University, which comprises over one third of Cornell's history, and I've played a role in shaping what Cornell is today. These various threads are all part of the fabric of my life story, and I've learned important life lessons, three of which I want to share with you now.
One of my important life lessons came early in my career. I was working full time and attending Boston University Graduate School of Management at night to obtain my MBA degree. It was the first time I had ever approached school with intense focus.
I took two courses each fall and spring semester and one course in each of the two summer sessions. I front-loaded my curriculum with finance and accounting as much as possible while deferring other distribution requirements. I attended classes and studied with purpose and passion.
For the first time, I discovered the difference between working hard and working to full capacity. I had essentially no free time. I was working full time. At a demanding job, attending classes most week nights, and writing papers or studying most weekends. I did this day after day for three years between September 1975 and October 1978.
I learned that, like most people, I had rarely exceeded a 95% level of effort before, probably because most of us were socialized to think that 95% is an A and an A is the best grade, right? But I found that I didn't have to stop at average, or above average, or even at 95%. I could work nearly every waking minute, and it felt good. I had the energy for it. I never stopped at 95% anymore, and the resulting gap between me and my peers who were top performers drove much of my subsequent career success.
The 5 points separating 95 and 100 don't seem like much. And it isn't on any given day, or any given exam, or work assignment. But it's a lot when those five points are compounded every day, week after week and month after month. Over the span of five years, it becomes an enormous gap of effort and achievement. When you push yourself to the 100% mark over the course of a 40-year career, as I learned to do, you can lift yourself to an elite level.
But what's most fulfilling about giving 100% is the resulting feeling of self-actualization, meaning that you have achieved your highest potential, which is all that any person can do, regardless of whether you eventually win or lose the worldly prize you seek. So this first important life lesson is to learn to give yourself this spiritual gift and guarantee yourself a spiritual win when you achieve your highest potential, whatever that may be.
A second important life lesson I want to share with you came 30 years later at the peak of my career when I was brutally fired by Citigroup and faced Securities and Exchange Commission prosecution without company protection. It was October 19, 2004, and I was waiting to make a presentation to a Citigroup board committee at approximately 2:30 PM in the afternoon when I was summoned to go immediately to CEO Chuck Prince's office.
Prince told me that I was being terminated and the public announcement would be released at 5:00 PM. He said I was being informed at that time so I would have an opportunity to speak to my staff before the announcement. I returned to my office and called my wife Addie so she would not be surprised by the public announcement. I met with my staff, which took longer than anticipated, because of their emotional outpouring.
At 6:39 PM, I sent the final farewell email to my global business unit employees and left the office. My driver was waiting in the usual location near the corner of Park Avenue and East 54th Street in Manhattan and traffic was heavy, so the drive home to Connecticut took longer than usual.
I didn't want to talk. My mind was spinning. This isn't a dream. This is real. You were just fired. Your career is over. What a fool you are. You thought you were important. Big job, big title, but you were nothing. They threw you out like an old dish rag. What are you going to say to Addie? How are you going to explain this to your family? My mind raced in circles around and around and around. It's 15 years later, and it still gets me.
Over the next few days, I was buried in negative news coverage driven by Citigroup's public relations machinery. I tried to think of how to soothe the pain my family was suffering. How could these brutal events which were unfolding occur in the elite corporate business world?
For as long as my family could remember, I had been the master of my own fate, always excelling, always calm, always prepared. I knew they were probably embarrassed and humiliated by the constant stream of negative news stories and questions from their friends. I knew they were probably apprehensive regarding what might happen to me and how all our lives might be affected.
I suspected that they wondered but would not ask whether perhaps I had indeed done something inappropriate. I knew my wife Addie was afraid. I reassured Addie, and the kids, and our close relatives as best I could-- thank you-- that I hadn't done anything inappropriate, let alone illegal, and everything would eventually work out OK-- but that it would take some time to get through this. I need, I told them, quiet time to meditate, and pray, and think.
Then, I turned to my faith for comfort. Despite how alone I felt those first few hours and days, in fact, I knew I was never alone. None of us is. God was with me. I had developed a daily prayer discipline in 1982, and one of my daily prayers, which stood me in good stead during this period, includes the phrases, "I affirm my belief, my father, that all things work together for good to those who love thee." And also, "I will not walk in fear, because I know that though has not given me the spirit of fear, but rather the spirit of power, and of love, and of sound mind."
I spent the next two weeks praying and meditating, trying to understand what was the good that could possibly come from this humiliation, and pain, and suffering. I prayed for healing for my family's pain and for my own pain. And I prayed for the strength to pick myself up and move forward.
Daily prayers and meditation enabled me to gather my strength, pick myself up, and prepare to fight. My spirit wasn't broken. Eight years later, at the end of this ordeal, having won against the SES in federal district court in 2007 and defeating the last piggyback class action litigation in federal district court in 2012, it was clear to me that my faith had indeed been redeemed, and I had been blessed in three ways.
All things work together for good to those who love God. I had been blessed financially through both a legal settlement with Citigroup for wrongful termination, and because I sold my Citigroup stock at $48 per share shortly after I was fired and before Citigroup's stock collapsed to $3 per share in October 2008.
I had been blessed physically, because it was only when I stepped away from my intense daily work routine that I realized the toll it was taking on my health. And I had been blessed spiritually because the ordeal of suffering and pain had caused me to grow closer to my wife and children.
So this second important life lesson is that if you're stripped of all the external accouterments of success, if your public persona is beaten and humiliated, if it seems that the world has turned against you, you're going to have to look inside yourself for spiritual strength. So I encourage each of you to learn how to prepare yourself with spiritual strength and depth for your time of trial. We all have a time of trial in our lives.
A third important life lesson was born in my experiences at Cornell. In the 1960s, some black students harbored intense animosity towards me and my best friend, Homer Skip Mead, because they said we "weren't really black." Apparently, because Skip and I were very popular on campus and moved easily and comfort in both black and white social circles.
The same pattern repeated itself in the 1990s. In 1994, I conceived and endowed the annual James A Perkins Prize for interracial harmony and understanding to honor the former Cornell University President who had become the primary scapegoat for the 1969 takeover. President Perkins' fate had nagged my conscience for many years, because it was Perkins who championed the [INAUDIBLE] program to increase the black student enrollment at Cornell beginning in 1965. And it was Perkins, who demonstrated his commitment to black educational opportunity through his service as chairman of the United Negro College Fund.
The Cornell Sun published an opinion column in April 1999 on the 30th anniversary of the Strait takeover, contrasting my life and outlook with that of Willard Straight Takeover leader Ed Whitfield, and observing that some Cornell black students, in a 1997 protest against the Perkins prize, called me derisively "Uncle Tom Jones," and Whitfield called me a sellout in a then recent newspaper interview. The Sun column concluded with the observation that the Cornell community would be enriched by a debate between community organizer Whitfield and business executive Jones.
In my autobiography, I respond as follows. "In such a Jones-Woodfield debate, I would say that I have no criticisms of the way that Ed Whitfield has lived his life, and I hope his community organizing endeavors have been successful. I would also say that Ed should acknowledge to the Cornell black community that I'm the person who stayed at Cornell in 1969 to assure that Africana Studies and Research Center came into existence in the aftermath of the Straight while Whitfield and a group of like-minded thinkers left Cornell that spring and summer and never returned.
"I would ask Ed to acknowledge to the Cornell black community that Africana probably wouldn't exist if it weren't for my work to get it approved, funded, and implemented. I would also say that I have drawers full of letters from people whose lives I have touched over the years in the companies in which I've worked, thanking me for promotions and compensation increases and for helping to create corporate environments conducive to their success. Many of those letters are from black men and women who are grateful for being better able to provide for their families.
"And I'm also proud of the recognition I've received from the faculty and staff at St. Aloysius School in Harlem, thanking me for providing funding and technology resources, which had enormous impact on the education of hundreds of low-income black children. I would say that I respect the life choices Ed Whitfield has made, and I hope that he and those who emulate him will someday learn to also respect the life choices that I and others like me have made.
"Ed and I both should be judged by the same standard, which is that success means that those whose lives have intersected with ours have had better lives because we have lived and they have known us. Finally, I would say to Ed that the day that I will respect him the most is when he publicly apologizes for calling me a sellout, rebukes the Cornell black students who disparaged me as Uncle Tom Jones, and repudiates this kind of name-calling in the black community."
As you can see from these anecdotes, my life experiences have taught me that some white people despise me for being black, and some black people despise me for not being black enough. This leads to the third important life lesson, which is that I aspired to rise above this hatred and live the high moral standard articulated by Martin Luther King at the 1963 March on Washington when he said he dreams of a world where all people are judged based on the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin.
I made that moral commitment when I left Cornell in 1972, and I reaffirmed it during my Cornell experiences in the 1990s. I encourage each of you to commit to leading your lives in accordance with this high moral standard. It's a decision I've never regretted, and neither will you.
In closing, I've shared my perspective on Cornell in 1969 and America today, and I've outlined three important life lessons for your reflection and consideration. I encourage each of you to give 100% to achieving your highest potential. I encourage each of you to build spiritual strength and depth for your hour of need. And I encourage each of you to rise above racial, cultural, ethnic, and religious animosities and live in accordance with the high moral standard articulated by Dr. King. Thank you.
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Tom Jones ’69, MRP ’72, whose prominent role in the occupation of Willard Straight Hall and its aftermath placed him at the center of discussion, debate and discord, returned to Willard Straight April 24, 2019 to mark the 50th anniversary of the takeover. Jones reflected on his role in the events of April 1969, the current state of race relations in America, and the important life lessons he learned during his 50-year journey from Cornell to Wall Street and back. Introduction by Olufemi Taiwo, Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies of Africana Studies and Research Center. Sponsored by the Lawrence ’68 and Judith Tanenbaum Distinguished Speakers Fellowship of Sigma Phi.