MLK's Residue in the Ad Industry

What Will We Leave Behind?

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Tiffany Warren
Tiffany R. Warren
In January 1985, I gave my first public speech in Mrs. Maria D'Itria's Fifth grade Advanced Studies class at The Curtis Guild Elementary School in East Boston, Mass. The speech was a recitation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream." In honor of MLK, Boston School District IX had set up a speech competition amongst its top students. In Mrs. D'Itria's class, Kari, Rashan, Paten and I were all neck-and-neck for the class valedictorian spot and so she thought this would be a nice way to choose the class valedictorian. I thought I was a shoe-in since I had already captured the title of Fifth Grade Class President a couple of weeks before.

But I wasn't resting on my laurels. We were all a twinkle in Mrs. D'Itria's eyes. So I had to set myself apart. I knew that if I could recite the speech with the passion and authority that Dr. King did I would be the victor.

I studied and recited the speech in front of every family member over a two-week period. Thank God for my grandmother, who never got tired of hearing the speech. On competition day, all I can remember is that I cried from the first word to the last. My voice was trembling so much from fear of forgetting even a single word I actually sounded like a southern preacher. I won (I think I captured the sympathy vote) and with Ms. D'Itria's help I wrote a valedictorian speech that spoke of inclusiveness and the importance of an education in achieving one's dreams.

Every line of the "I Have A Dream" speech is a blueprint for my dreams and the content of my character. I am fortunate because of Dr. King's ultimate sacrifice and the words he left behind -- to have, as Dr. Cornel West says, "a life task" and not a "day job."

Dick Parsons, Time Warner chairman and former CEO, once said, "Luck is the residue of hard work." So what residue is left in the annals of advertising history by the lucky multicultural executives who, inspired by Dr. King's message, made it to our industry's top echelons through hard work and entrepreneurialism? Although advertising's multicultural heroes contributed to the growth of this industry, they are often not recognized.

Were their efforts in vain? Not to those who are and continue to be inspired by their words, images and struggles.

As detailed in a new book by Jason Chambers called "Madison Avenue and the Color Line" in 1968, the same year that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. entered the promise land, two important advertising-related events happened.

The first was the state-of-the-industry address delivered by Jock Elliot, 1968 chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, in which he encouraged its members to increase opportunities for people of color because as "problem solvers, pace-setters and molders of public opinion . . . we bring up the rear" in minority recruitment and retention.

The second was the Group for Advertising Progress or GAP, created by advertising elder statesman Doug Alligood of BBDO. This group created courses to prepare African-American advertising professionals for the rigors of the advertising industry. They were a voice for change and undoubtedly helped many people overcome the barriers and obstacles that were an inherit part of "every day" business in the ad world at that time. The residue left behind by Mr. Alligood's contribution and Mr. Elliot's public effort for progress in hiring minorities helped create a ripple in the sea of change that occurred because of the work of Dr. King.

Today, African-Americans have gone from serving the cream of wheat to owning stock in P&G, and for that we can certainly thank Dr. King and those brave souls who continue (yes, continue) to fight for equality in all its forms. At the recent taping of the inaugural BET Honors in Washington, where extraordinary African-American achievement was highlighted, Tyra Banks said in her acceptance speech for the BET Honor for Achievement in Media that she will continue to push the envelope of what is an acceptable accomplishment for a "black, skinny girl" until "there will be no doors to knock down but only doorways to walk through".

I end by saying in the words of Dr. King, "We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline." I thank Mr. Elliot, Mr. Alligood, Mr. Parsons, Dr. West and many others like Eleanor Holmes Norton (commissioner of the first NYCHR investigation of advertising employment practices) and Clarence Holte, the Jackie Robinson of the advertising industry for doing just that.
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