Southern Christian Leadership Conference President and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Charles Steele denounces Sherwin-Williams
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, December 2021) Dr. Charles Steele, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO0 of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., traveled to Cleveland last month to meet with the CEO of Sherwin-Williams.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was established in 1957 to coordinate the action of local protest groups throughout the South. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., the organization drew on the power and independence of black churches to support its activities. As early as 1962 SCLC began to broaden its focus to include economic inequality issues. Headquartered in Atlanta, SCLC is now a worldwide organization with chapters and affiliates located throughout the United States and globally.
Sherwin-Williams said they wouldn’t meet with Steele. The Ohio–based company in the paint and coating manufacturing industry is in the second phase of a three-phase design process for their world headquarters in downtown Cleveland. Black-owned firms have so far been left out of the process to build the $600 million facilities, according to SCLC.
“We have a campaign called The Streets to the Suites – Dinner with Racism within Corporate America. I have extended an invitation to the Chairman and President of the board of the company so we can start a dialogue. But I haven’t heard anything yet,” Steele told Cleveland 19 News.
The Sherwin-Williams Company responded by issuing a statement: “We are highly disappointed and surprised by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s recent statement, which ignores our inclusive approach and is uninformed by the facts. We are proud to discuss the robust process we have in place and the opportunities for minority-owned firms to participate in this project.”
Steele was asked by Norm Edwards, head of the Cleveland Black Contractors Group, to help negotiate an agreement. The Black Contractors Group called on elected officials to withhold more than $100 million in public incentives for Sherwin-Williams.
“We call it racism. Racism is a virus just like COVID-19. If you don’t heal from racist approaches to society, it will be passed on from generation to generation,” Steele said in an interview with the East Side Daily News. “We’re in Cleveland to make sure black contractors are involved in the decision-making positions.”
Steele repeatedly asked Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer of Sherwin-Williams, John G. Morikis, to participate in a dialogue. Morikis has never replied. Instead, Steele was sent to a consultant for the company in response to his request, a person of color from Gilbane Building Company vetted by Sherwin-Williams to handle the complaint.
“I refuse to talk to anyone less than Morikis. Anyone less than the president of the company cannot make a decision on what we need,” said Steele, who has never had a president, CEO, or Chairman of the Board, of any company in the United States and abroad refuse to meet with him until he came to Cleveland. “A consultant will not do.”
Earlier this year, the Atlanta-based SCLC targeted Nielsen Holdings, an American, information, data, and market measurement firm, as part of a campaign against corporate racism. Nielsen Holdings eventually settled a federal discrimination lawsuit by a Chicago-based, black female executive who had accused the company of racism. The lawsuit had been tied up in the courts with lawyers from both sides for over three years before SCLC became involved.
“I came in at the end. Lawyers for both sides were trying to settle the case and they couldn’t do it,” said Steele. “I did it in six or seven weeks.”
The agreement bans both sides from disclosing its terms.
“I’m satisfied,” he said.
Steele wants Sherwin-Williams to know he’s serious when it comes to finding a solution to the black-owned business contracts and suggests Morikis follow the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Gather the facts and educate the public, make a personal commitment to the process before you’re ready to negotiate, then negotiate,” Steele said. “This should be followed by direct action. Finally, always get involved with reconciliation.”
The $600 million project is partially financed with up to $100 million in public money and could cost $1 billion with design changes and overrun costs before it’s completed. Steele believes minorities should have 15 percent to 40 percent of the contracts. The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC of America) said that by 2020, more than 50 percent of businesses entering the construction industry would be minority-owned or female-owned. Construction firms need to see their workforce mirror the communities in which they work, the report stated. By doing so, companies stand to gain a deeper understanding of their market and more effectively reach consumers.
Sherwin-Williams responded by awarding contacts to four minority-owned businesses amounting to less than one million dollars over a period of three years, said Steele.
“That is an insult. We’re going to continue to protest not only in Cleveland but all over the world,” he said when asked what SCLC will do if CEO Morikis refuses to meet with them. “We have offices all over the world. We’ll protest in every major city where Sherwin-Williams is located. We’re a global civil rights organization.”
Steele was also in Cleveland to support the successful mayoral campaign of Justin Bibb, not as a representative of SCLC, but as an individual. It’s the first time in his long career that he’s stepped out of the limelight as president of SCLC to support a political campaign. A former elected official from Alabama, Steele served two terms in the Tuscaloosa City Council. In 1994, he was elected to the Alabama State Senate and re-elected three times before resigning to become president of the SCLC in November 2004.
“The Civil Rights movement has gone full circle,” he said about Bibb. “Mayor Bibb will have the opportunity to take the African American experience of Carl Stokes to another degree.”
“The problem in Cleveland is the problem in America,” he added. “It’s systemic racism. We are a country of sick people. We’ve never been healed from the Transatlantic African slave trade.”
Steele was first aware of the Civil Rights movement at fifteen years old when a water fountain at a newly constructed Tuscaloosa courthouse had two options: one for Colored Only, the other for Whites Only. The White Only fountain was taller meaning one didn’t have to bend down to drink the water. The Colored Only fountain was lower, forcing people to arch their backs, and the water was hot. He drank the cold water.
“The whole world depends on the Civil Rights movement,” he said. “I thank God for not making me normal. I’m different. I don’t accept the norm and people saying it has got to be this way or that way. Too many people are losing their lives.”
Steele has advice for Bibb as mayor: educate the people of Cleveland, follow the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and eradicate racism.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the East Side Daily News which shared the article with the Plain Press. The East Side Daily News and the Plain Pressare members of the Neighborhood and Community Media Association of Greater Cleveland.