by Jackson Lord
One of the nation’s most powerful black chief executives is breaking his silence after publicly sparring with President Trump last year.
Ken Frazier, the North Philly-born president, chairman and CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals—the first African American to hold such a post—does not seem like a hero. He’s a corporate lawyer-turned-corporate executive in one of the most loved and hated and needed industries in the world, a man in the company and class of people whose taste for the good fight too often depends on its effect on the bottom line.
But Frazier earned his perch as a titan of American industry the hard way—through hard work, blowing past the barriers of race and class from which he comes. And he is not afraid to wield his position like a sword, to be the kind of hero we need in these trying days in America.
In the wake of the horrendous events in Charlottesville last summer—when an angry Nazi in a rally of Nazis struck and killed a peaceful counter-protester—Frazier waited two days for Pres. Trump to speak out against hatred. Like most of us, he was disappointed.
Mr. Frazier, the grandson of a man born into slavery, was the first of a series of chief executives to distance themselves from the president. “I feel a responsibility to take a stand against extremism,” he wrote on Merck’s Twitter account at the time.
So Frazier seized the opportunity to himself be presidential. He publicly quit Trump’s CEO Advisory Council, with a statement that said what most of us were thinking: “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy…As a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”
“It was my view that to not take a stand on this would be viewed as a tacit endorsement of what had happened and what was said,” he said. “I think words have consequences, and I think actions have consequences. I just felt that as a matter of my own personal conscience, I could not remain.”
Trump—of course—responded with a Twitter slam. But it didn’t matter. Frazier set the dominoes in motion, and eventually the council was dismantled all together because—as Frazier realized early—there is no advising the ill-advised.
In December, the Urban Affairs Coalition gave Frazier the “2017 Doer Award,” created in honor of former Gov. Ed Rendell to honor an individual who has made Philadelphia a better place to live, work and play. UAC President/CEO Sharmain Matlock-Turner says they chose Frazier because of his “lifelong commitment to diversity, education and equal justice. Ken reminds us all that it is not where you start in life; it’s where, with hard work, opportunity and support, you can end up!”
In his acceptance speech, Frazier didn’t mention the events of last August. That was left to others, like Attorney General Josh Shapiro: “A sense of pride came within me when I saw Ken Frazier, Philadelphia’s own, standing up the way he did in a dark time in our country’s history and demonstrating that there is hope, demonstrating to us what real true class and conviction mean.”
Instead, he talked of an even more important lesson, one he learned early. Mr. Frazier came from a humble background. As mentioned earlier his grandfather was born into slavery in South Carolina, and his father was a janitor in Philadelphia, barely-educated. Yet Mr. Frazier’s parents pushed him to believe he could achieve greats things.
“Mine is the story of any kid growing up in North Philly,” he said to great applause. “One of the most invidious lies told in our society is that children are fundamentally constrained by the circumstances in which they’re born and raised. It is a falsehood. I am evidence of one thing and one thing only: Kids will live up to or down to the standards of the grown ups around them.”
“They believed that despite the history of this country as it related to African-Americans, that for my siblings and I, there would be tremendous opportunity,” he said. “They also instilled that it was our responsibility to take advantage of the opportunities they did not have.”
Mr. Frazier attend Pennsylvania State University. After earning a degree from Harvard Law School, he went to work at Drinker Biddle & Reath, a law firm in Philadelphia. While there, he began representing Merck, and took on pro bono work.
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