Discrimination and Equality

Racial inequality and conversations we can’t afford to ignore

Racial inequality and conversations we can’t afford to ignore

What I learned from a conversation with John Lewis

What I learned from a conversation with John Lewis – a McKinsey and Company article

By Jason Wright. Jason helps CFOs, chief HR officers, and chief security officers set bold aspirations and brings deep expertise in administrative operations to execute transformations


July 24, 2020. When I was a senior associate, I had the honor of spending a few hours with John Lewis, the late U.S. Congressman representing Georgia’s Fifth District. I was returning from a client engagement in New York, awaiting my regularly delayed flight from LaGuardia Airport when I noticed him seated across from me.

As the son of civil rights activists (my father was a Black Panther turned racial reconcilist and my great uncle an activist professor at Tuskegee), I spent every Saturday learning about Black history. And though this gentleman was sitting quietly at the gate, I knew his unassuming nature belied his formidable legacy.

John Lewis was a civil rights icon who dedicated his life to advancing Black rights in the United States. He was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, leading lunch-counter sit-ins in the Jim Crow South, one of the 13 original Freedom Riders who challenged segregation in public transportation in 1961, and one of the organizers and speakers at the March on Washington in 1963.

Jason Wright, McKinsey partner, presents our philanthropy research findings at the Black Economic Forum in 2018.

Jason Wright, McKinsey partner, presents our philanthropy research findings at the Black Economic Forum in 2018.

He was in the inner circle of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his arrest and beating by law enforcement catalyzed the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama, galvanizing support for the Voting Rights Act. For the past 33 years until his death, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Thrilled by the opportunity to meet a legend, I walked over to John Lewis, introduced myself, and told him what an honor it was to meet him. He invited me to sit down with him, and we had a conversation that was, to me, remarkable.

First, he deflected all of my praise and deference, quickly pivoting to asking me questions about myself. He wanted to know my story. So, I began telling him about my parents’ big push on education, economic empowerment, and how they thought about elevation of socioeconomic class as the real marker for success. At some point during the conversation, I realized I had been talking about myself for some time. I expected him to offer stories about his own experience, but he didn’t.

Instead, he said, “You’ve done amazing things for someone who is 33 years old. But I’m curious, what drives you?”

I had an answer to his question that I think about often. I said, “I’ve been privileged to enter sectors and spaces where people who look like me have not traditionally been. These are places that were closed to my parents, even legally at times. And when I’m in these spaces of influence, I want to learn the ways of that place and use the influence for things I care about. I want to use it for the empowerment of groups and individuals who have been marginalized.”

We eventually segued into the topic of then-U.S. President Barack Obama, whose election represented an enormous milestone. We discussed what that said about the American psyche; how hopeful it made us, irrespective of supporting the president’s politics. John shared what excited him most about where the nation was heading in terms of race relations.

Where the nation was heading at the time was toward an increasing number of young people in leadership positions across the political and corporate landscapes. I mentioned that I was not so confident about the ability of the younger generations to lead in the ways we needed—my impression was that they were not as resilient; they always wanted everything and everybody to be accommodating and inclusive and seemed unwilling to accept that that’s simply not how the real world operates. I paused, expecting John to agree with me, but he didn’t.

Perhaps most importantly, [John Lewis] leaves behind a legacy of change through persistence. It’s this quality, he proved, that changes mindsets, social structures, and policies.

“Actually,” he said, “I love what young people are doing because they are pushing me and everybody else to have a higher bar for what it means to be included and accepted. They might be wild and uncalibrated, but they are the fire that we need. The old fire is not going to get us where we need to go. I listen to these young people, and I take them seriously. When I don’t understand them, I keep asking questions. And I think you should too.”

It’s a challenge that has echoed strongly in my ears over the last few months, as the nation and the world started a dialogue in reaction to the murder of George Floyd. We as a firm have decided to use our Values to join that narrative and be leaders both for colleagues and for the broader marketplace on the topic of racial equity and justice—how to talk about it and lead on it through one’s business model. And to the Congressman’s credit, he was right: It is largely younger generations who continue to raise and propel these issues to the forefront of the global conversation.

Instead of approaching this discussion with my normal curmudgeon mindset, I thought about what John Lewis said, and I decided to listen. And I encouraged other people to listen. I took in perspectives that I might initially have thought of as too radical or unrealistic and realized that’s actually what we need to move things forward.

As we neared the end of our conversation, John invited me to come visit him in his office in D.C. I followed up with an email to his chief of staff, but when I didn’t hear back, I never reached out again. Looking back, I wish I had.

The time I spent with John Lewis was marked by his selflessness and his encouraging demeanor, which let him both correct and affirm me with the same smile and warmth.

I will remember him as a pragmatic-yet-extraordinary leader who encouraged us all to be bold, to embrace “good trouble,” and to listen at least as much as we speak. Perhaps most importantly, he leaves behind a legacy of change through persistence. It’s this quality, he proved, that changes mindsets, social structures, and policies. I know I will do my part to steward his legacy, and I hope you will join me—though you may face pushback when advocating within your community, it’s through persistence that you will find courage, optimism, and ultimately action.

Rest in peace, Representative John Lewis (February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020)

Jason Wright is a partner at McKinsey and Company. With thanks to McKinsey for sharing this with us.

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