I learned a very important lesson in 1971, which seems to be so relevant today.
I was 23 and, along with 200 other recent college graduates, was freshly drafted into the U.S. Army. Admitted into the Infantry Officers Candidate School, after basic training at Ft. Jackson, SC, we were bound for Ft. Benning, Ga., for 26 weeks of officer training. After graduation, we would be commissioned officers — second lieutenants in the greatest army to walk this earth.
Something went wrong. President Nixon began the massive pullout of Vietnam and the demand for new lieutenants plummeted. The powers that be decided to renege on our contracts. During our Ft. Jackson stint they informed us they were canceling the Officer Candidate School. We were to become enlisted troops for the rest of our service.
This news was shocking and economically devastating to each and every one of us. As we all sat down on the grass of an open field that evening discussing our hurt and outrage, something clicked in my mind. Private Hoage had told me that his mother was personal secretary to Sen. Barry Goldwater. Barry Goldwater: the presidential candidate, who also was a general in the U.S. Air Force National Guard and Chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services committee.
I asked Hoage to call his mother immediately and plead that the Army was about to ruin us — unless Sen. Goldwater used his power to stop them and correct the awful breach of contract.
Two hours later Hoage came running onto the field to address us. He said, "My mother has a message from Senator Goldwater: 'Sleep well tonight – tomorrow morning I will stop them from this misdeed.'"
Many of our fellow troopers laughed in disbelief, but at 11 a.m. the next morning our battalion commander informed us that we were all going to Officers Candidate School after all. He claimed that he and the other officers worked it out with the Pentagon.
One phone call saved the future of over 200 young men. Today, each and every one of us have that Army commission on our resumes, testifying to proven managerial and leadership skills. It would not have happened without a way to access power and affect a positive change.
Fast forward to last week. I was waiting to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Small Business Committee about the lack of lending to Black businesses by the U.S. Export Import Bank. The bank has been negligent in its outreach to minority owned businesses, particularly Black-owned business. I wanted them to start paying some attention to our needs for capital access in the export/import game? But if I complain or accuse, they could simply ignore me or proclaim they will do better while doing nothing to make it happen.
So I thought about the Goldwater experience and how it matched this predicament. When my turn to testify came I let it rip.
Showing my outrage, I declared that no federal agency or office can continue daily operations that exclude the African American population of this nation. It surprised them all when I shouted, "Congresswoman Clarke, I request that the Congressional Black Caucus get involved in this matter and if they conclude as I have that possible discrimination exists within this taxpayer funded operation that they expunge their existence from the Federal Budget. If they can't include us, they shouldn't even exist." Our sister from Brooklyn, the Honorable Yvette Clarke, agreed to take it up with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and encouraged the U.S. Export Import Bank to change their ways … quickly.
The same day, I received an email from two vice presidents of the bank to set up a meeting and start a strategy to include African American businesses in their activity. Everything changed.
The Congressional Black Caucus is now a power base whose leaders display the confidence of David and the wisdom of Solomon. It wasn't always like that, but today we have a committed and qualified team that will not be denied. The fight is on. MLK, the time is getting near.
Harry Alford is the co-founder, president/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Website: www.nationalbcc.org.