This piece is part of Business Insider’s series “We Won’t Wait,” in which we will give you a broader understanding of the underlying issues by diving deeper into why we’re talking and what we’re trying to accomplish.
A shipment from Alaska to Atlanta is 90 miles long and has to arrive for UPS’s New York city hub by noon on election day. The CEO of the company recalls the day in 1965 that the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.
“When I was 17, two Negroes were shot at a polling place in Atlanta for the first time and I remember that,” UPS CEO David Abney told Business Insider in a deep interview at the company’s headquarters. “I think what happened is what was maybe the first real political reaction — was an act by Congress.”
A month after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, Abney witnessed a performance at the Orpheum Theater in Atlanta by the Dust Brothers — a young duo, David Lee Roth and David Axelrod, who made a go of a musical featuring both he and his brother, Duane.
“Duane was instrumental in getting the ban on alcohol in college football [at Furman] repealed,” Abney said. “They played the inauguration of his mother, and Duane had the time to introduce him, with a little bit of his own anti-alcohol speech and musical content.”
The site is currently suffering a flood of water damage, leaving letters and documents, and the company’s executive offices, scattered throughout the theater. The back of a notice for the protest performance, addressed to Congresswoman Bella Abzug, is tucked away.
Before the Civil Rights Act became law, integration efforts by African Americans were met with tremendous resistance. On 2 October 1965, 16-year-old Emmett Till was tortured and killed after allegedly flirting with a white woman in Mississippi. Despite a number of protests, including demonstrations in Atlanta, Till’s killers were acquitted.
Two years later, Abney joined UPS as a 20-year-old in Atlanta in a forerunner to what was to become a long and successful career. He was studying to be a medical student at Emory University. Abney said the first thing he saw when he walked into the warehouse was an “unsettled assembly line.”
“The number of minorities in that position was virtually zero,” he said.
The workforce was 75 percent white, with two black employees, one from Mississippi, one from Florida. Abney would go on to become the first African American director of the United States’ Transport Workers Union and president of the Teamsters General Council.
Abney’s career quickly propelled him into the role of head of the UPS Road Teamsters Union, and in 1995 he joined the corporate level.
On Wednesday, Abney discussed the impact of the Voting Rights Act — which he described as “truly courageous” and “sometimes beautifully crafted” — on the people of the company, the Atlanta community, and American society.
“The Walmart you’re standing at today is the opposite of the Walmart of the 1960s,” he said. “We aren’t stopping at equality in terms of access for all.”
Abney added: “If you’re looking for solutions to civil rights, the solution is going to be delivered by one person. We went from that point of view.”
Video from the November 2016 Georgia gubernatorial race by Jana Arduin on Vimeo.