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Business Owners In Georgia Speak Up After Controversial Line Assigned


Georgia's Republican governor has signed a massive overhaul of election rules that limits mail-in voting, places new requirements for voter IDs and even a provision to keep voters waiting in line from being given a bottle of water. Seventy-two prominent Black executives have signed a full-page ad in The New York Times calling a nationwide wave of more restrictive voting proposals undemocratic and say that corporate America has a fierce urgency to speak out.

Darren Walker was among those who signed on to that demand. He's president of the Ford Foundation and joins us now. Mr. Walker, thanks so much for being with us.

DARREN WALKER: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: We should explain, of course, that Ford Foundation is a supporter of NPR. And in addition to the Ford Foundation, you sit on several corporate boards, including Pepsi and Ralph Lauren. Don't major corporations usually try to avoid speaking out on political issues? I mean, there's the famous Michael Jordan quote that, you know, both Republicans and Democrats buy running shoes.

WALKER: Well, generally, corporations try to keep a low profile on controversial political matters. But there have been occasions, most recently when a number of states were taking action to reduce, suppress and discriminate against people who are LGBTQ with the infamous bathroom bills. And a number of corporate leaders signed on. In fact, some 65 CEOs signed on to a statement in opposition to that legislation in a number of states and were successful in ensuring that those bills were withdrawn. So there is precedent. For me, as a gay, Black man, I have seen a sense of urgency around some of those LGBT issues that I take very seriously not matched when it comes to the issue of race.

SIMON: There was a couple of companies with big headquarters in Georgia - I'm thinking of Delta and Coca-Cola - seemed to toughen their statements against limiting voting access as the week went on. Should they have said something before the vote?

WALKER: We are appreciative of those CEOs standing up. They stood up after it mattered, quite frankly. And we hope that we can mobilize across the country courageous CEOs and companies willing to stand for American values. Voting is the most hallowed and important and sacred act in a democracy that its citizens can exercise.

SIMON: Let me ask you this, Mr. Walker. Does the threat of boycotts sometimes sharpen the conscience of corporations?

WALKER: Absolutely it does. It's not our intent to support or encourage boycotts. But boycotts have proven effective, going back to the civil rights movement and the efforts, most notably, in Birmingham, the effort in Montgomery around the buses, around retailers who refused to serve African Americans.

SIMON: ViacomCBS has criticized the Georgia voting law. They also happen to be broadcasting the Masters tournament from Augusta, Ga. Should they consider whether or not they broadcast that? It would cost them ad revenue, but it would certainly send a strong signal.

WALKER: Well, I do think that corporations should exert their economic power. And they should exert their moral power and the power of persuasion that comes from both of those vectors. So I do believe that it's important not to threaten, not to boycott, even, but to certainly acknowledge your displeasure and disapproval when you see political leaders taking actions that are antithetical to your corporate values.

SIMON: Help us understand why you think this issue has gotten a lot of corporations to jump in when they have often been reluctant.

WALKER: I actually, Scott, think that many of these CEOs want to do the right thing. They need cover. They need cover because they know that there will be negative consequences from some corners if they act courageously. The incentives today in America for leaders often discourage courage. And in order to be a leader on many of these issues, you must speak with both a moral voice and a voice of reason. And you must also speak to the facts. And too often, these ideas are lost in our discourse today.

SIMON: Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation. Thanks so much for being with us.

WALKER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SEA AND CAKE SONG, "BIRD AND FLAG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.