The Business Legacy of Martin Luther King

Today across the United States we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. We celebrate because his vision for the future of our country was beyond what could have been imagined during his lifetime. He saw beyond our limitations, our narrow self-interest, our zone of comfort. He saw a place of equality and justice. Of course, by saying this I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

We all know one of his most referenced quotes:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Yes, he spoke about race – the burning issue of the time – and consequently business and government ever since have rightly focused on affirmative action, equal opportunity and other representation-based systems and practices as the answer to his call. But I think he anticipated a greater, deeper vision found in the second half of the quote … “by the content of their character.”

I think his bigger vision was inclusion in society, at work, in government. It’s not enough to simply sit at the table, represented but silenced, barely acknowledged. Your character can’t be judged if no one knows who you are, and they won’t know who you are if you aren’t allowed to express the totality of what that means.

Business must find itself moving beyond representation and programmatic diversity. That path is, at most, a small vision and cold comfort to equality and justice. The big picture vision is a fully integrated workforce, engaged at a global level that accepts cultural differences and is free from unconscious bias.

But business leaders are not the ones charged with finding this path.

For those of us working in diversity and inclusion, our business imperative is to help organizational leadership understand the value of inclusion. To do that we must align ourselves with the concerns of leadership. If we understand what keeps CEOs up at night and can help solve some of their concerns about globalization, productivity and market share through cultural competence, bias-free workplaces and multicultural marketing – in short impacting the bottom line and shareholder value – then we will have earned a place at the table from which to launch increasingly more inclusive work environments.

If organizational America – corporations, government, nonprofits – really want to live by King’s vision they would do well to bend the arc of justice toward inclusive work environments where everyone’s character can truly be judged.

Steve Humerickhouse is executive director of The Forum on Workplace Inclusion™.