My favorite uncle, William Wise Hayden, died in 2004. Uncle Bill was a factory worker at Ford Motor Company and a proud United Auto Workers union member, and in his off hours he was a man about town and an avid photographer. I visited Uncle Bill at his Detroit home a few months before he died, and during that visit he gave me one of his most prized photo albums. I felt as if he was bequeathing the album to me, and that feeling was reinforced when I read the words on the cover. The words, typed on a blue plastic label affixed to the green vinyl album cover, were: ”BETWEEN THESE COVERS ARE THE GOOD PEOPLE.” When I returned to my mother’s home in Flint I anxiously tore open the album to see who my uncle considered Good People. Most of the pictures were from the 1970s and 80s. The Good People were white and black, young and old, high status and regular folks. Of course, the main thing I was looking for during that first inspection was to see if I was included in the book.
In the years before my Uncle Bill placed the pictures in his Good People photo album, an epic civil rights battle was waged throughout the United States, including in Detroit and in my hometown, Flint. It was a struggle based on the notion, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, that “all men are created equal.” My grandmother, Uncle Bill’s mother, put the notion in much simpler terms. She often said, “people are people.”
The fruits of the civil rights struggle that occurred throughout my youth nourished my life and career choices. I was just one year old when the Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. I was eleven when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, and twelve when the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965. In 1967, at just fourteen years old, I participated in a “sleep-in” on the Flint City Hall lawn to support enactment of the city’s first “open housing” ordinance. The following year, Flint’s open housing law became the first in the nation confirmed by popular referendum. The changes my friends and I witnessed in those days promised equal access to education, employment, the ballot box, public accommodations, and housing. We were certain that we were on the verge of a new day.
Much to my surprise and lasting chagrin, the hard-fought civil-rights victories of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s brought forth not only welcome social, economic, and cultural changes, but also a bitter backlash. In the immediate aftermath of those victories, and especially after the open housing law, the City of Flint was devastated, and has still not recovered to this day. Rather than live on equal terms and in the same neighborhoods with blacks, many white folks left the city en masse, taking their resources, influence, and expertise with them. Then the decision makers at General Motors removed factories from the city, taking thousands and thousands of good-paying jobs with them. Flint went from being a leading world-class city with the second highest per capita income in the country, to one of its saddest and poorest municipalities, largely seen as a world-class basket case.
The backlash seen in Flint was based largely on race and on denial of the notion that all people, red or yellow, black, brown, or white, are members of the same human family. Our inability to live together as one people destroyed what had been a thriving and vital community.
My grandmother, Elizabeth Bernice Hayden (we called her “Mimama”), raised my mother Claudia Louise Tarver, my Uncle Bill, and their two siblings Mary and Emerald. She was one of 16 children raised on a farm in Camilla, Georgia. Her paternal grandmother, Ammie Alexander, was born into slavery before being emancipated with her family in 1863. The harsh legacy of slavery experienced by my ancestors was perpetuated by two despicable myths: the myth of race, and the myth of white supremacy. My ancestors, proud and defiant, never bought into the myths. They never believed that they were not worthy of God’s abundance, or that they were somehow inferior to white folks. They never believed that their children shouldn’t aspire to a better life. Perhaps most important, they never succumbed to hate. My grandmother, who lived with us, drilled the notion that “people are people” not only into her children, but into me and my siblings as well.
I came of age in the pre- and immediate post-backlash days that coincided with Flint’s economic heyday. My friends and I experienced excellent schools, a booming economy, and the city’s nascent swipes at integration. Most peers from my largely black Flint neighborhood became productive and successful citizens and community leaders. I joined the first wave of blacks who were taking advantage of new opportunities afforded by civil rights era gains – first at General Motors Institute (GMI), then at University of Michigan, then at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.
After graduating from University of Michigan, I began my professional career at Bell Labs as a product development engineer – a Member of Technical Staff – in one of the few multicultural groups at the company. It was a group that wouldn’t have existed just ten years earlier. The group was led by John Colton, a young white manager who seemed intent on assembling a highly diverse, highly skilled team of engineers. At a time when it was rare to find a group with even one nonwhite member, our group included three black engineers, two black technicians, and engineers of Chinese, Japanese, Cuban, Italian, Scottish, English, and Danish descent. Our group exemplified diversity and excellence, and we were extremely productive, i.e., the products we created made a massive amount of money for AT&T. After four years in that group, I was promoted to management in a different department. I did my best to follow John Colton’s example and assemble a talented and diverse team, and for the most part, I succeeded.
After seven years, I left Bell Labs to pursue my lifelong dream. I started a company – Telecom Analysis Systems (TAS) – in the basement of my home, and my cofounders were the two other black engineers from my first Bell Labs group. We were determined from the beginning of our venture to hire the best people we could find, irrespective of physical characteristics, ethnic background, or gender preference. We wanted engineers and computer scientists who had excellent technical skills, were able to work effectively with people of different backgrounds and were anxious to see the product of their work reach the hands of customers. We enforced a firm “no asshole” policy. In other words, no matter how technically talented an employee was, he or she had to treat all coworkers with respect if they wanted to work for us.
Our approach worked. It wasn’t easy, but we cultivated an excellent team of people from many different backgrounds who, by and large, enjoyed working together. While building our business, I met Good People all over the world who were able to put my skin color aside in the interest of reaching our mutual business goals. There was the former Bell Labs co-worker from Ghana who literally saved our infant business with a big and consequential order; the Scottish-born sales representative in Boston who taught me, by example, how to close sales; the Japanese sales manager in Tokyo who almost single-handedly built our business in that very demanding market; the white engineering manager at Rockwell Semiconductor in California who overruled subordinates who were biased against us. Over time, we assembled a community of employees, customers, suppliers, and partners who were Good People, and together we achieved amazing success.
People are people. That simple notion, that truth, first expressed to me by my grandmother, was validated by my professional experience. In recent years, I found further validation of this truth in the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. That seminal book related the scientific finding that our human species, Homo Sapiens, originated in East Africa. The book related the further finding that, beginning roughly 70,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens spread from East Africa and ultimately displaced all the world’s earlier human species. The bottom line is this: the people inhabiting the earth today comprise a single human species that originated in Africa. The physical differences between human populations are merely adaptations to local environmental circumstances and are of no consequence in terms of cognitive abilities.
The book Sapiens put a lot of things in context for me and helped explain the success of the United States. We live in a unique society that purports to be based on shared values rather than skin color, cultural heritage, or religious beliefs. Our founders enshrined values that they themselves often contradicted. The path to the “more perfect union” they envisaged has been anything but a straight line. The country we experience today was forged in a furnace of heartache, social discord, and conflict, but it yielded the best society the world has to offer, often referred to as humankind’s last best hope. Our ability to cooperate at scale across skin color and cultural differences is our superpower – it is what has made our nation exceptional.
Though it may sound trite, the United States truly has been the world’s melting pot…or perhaps simmering stew is a better analogy. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…also your nuclear scientists, your software development engineers, your artists, your workers. We have benefited from a broad swath of the world’s human capacity to a far greater extent than any other country. Our founding documents facilitated this, even if the authors couldn’t foresee the implications of what they created. Our country is living proof that greatness stems from diversity, not from homogeneity. Genius and stupidity, good and evil, can be found in people of every skin color and ethnicity. People are people.
Today in the United States many people accept these truths, and many do not. Most of those who deny the truth hate the multi-hued, multicultural society we have become. They fear democracy because it does not enshrine or ensure white domination. They would rather “burn it down” than coexist. These people, knowingly or unknowingly, would bring the social and economic devastation that occurred in Flint, Michigan to the entire country.
Who are the Good People?
To me, the Good People are those who reject racism and are willing to share their community with others irrespective of skin color, ethnicity, religion, and national origin. They strive to treat others the way they would like to be treated. They are open to learn from and grow with their neighbors, to engage with them and hold them accountable, and to be held accountable. Good People embrace basic civic values such as government by and for the people. They support reason and science. They welcome immigrants. They believe that every person is charged with the responsibility to build a better family, community, country, and world.
I’ve been privileged to know many Good People. If I were to collect those people in a photo album, as Uncle Bill once did, it would be an incredibly thick volume. I imagine that Uncle Bill would heartily approve each of my choices. I know that he, like me, would pray that in the United States and in the world at large, the Good People will prevail.
W. David Tarver
January 18, 2021