NNPA – On the eve of yet another national march for racial justice last week, the NAACP and the National Urban League appear strangely on opposite sides of an important case of alleged racial injustice.
The case involves more than 50 current and former Black workers at the Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co. that employs some 13,000 people. Dozens of African-Americans from Dallas, Atlanta, Memphis and Charlotte have joined a race discrimination lawsuit against the drug maker and nearly 200 others are poised to testify in the case, appearing to lend credibility to allegations first made in a lawsuit filed last year. The suit accuses the company of hostility toward Black employees, an accusation that Eli Lilly has vehemently rejected as being without merit and has promised a prompt and thorough investigation, says Patty Martin, Lilly’s vice president for global diversity.
On one hand, the NAACP has become a plaintiff in the discrimination lawsuit, also involving a noose threat, and has participated in protests with alleged victims. On the other hand, the National Urban League was scheduled to give Eli Lilly and several other companies top honors at its 51st Annual Equal Opportunity Day Awards Dinner last week.
An NUL release describes the awards as being for “individuals and corporations who perpetuate the principle of equal opportunity and exhibit leadership qualities that result in notable contributions to the cause of equal rights.”
Marc Morial, president and CEO of the NUL which prides itself as “the nation’s oldest and largest community-based movement devoted to empowering African-Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream,” said in an emailed response to an interview request: “The National Urban League chose to honor Eli Lilly with its Corporate Leadership Award long before we recently learned through press reports that the NAACP had joined a lawsuit against the company.”
He added, “We stand by our decision to honor Eli Lilly, which is based on their work with us on efforts to reduce health disparities in a number of our affiliate cities. We respect the NAACP, and share with them a century long commitment to equal employment opportunity. While we express no opinion on the merits of the lawsuit at this time, we also do not dismiss the merits inasmuch as we have not heard directly from the NAACP which we are open to.”
The NUL’s award reveals the need for unifying policies among civil rights organizations, says Dr. Ron Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland.
Walters also points out that Ely Lilly is listed on NUL’s website as a “Champion” among a string of corporate financial donors.
“Corporations work like that. You get in trouble over here. You cover your [rear] over here. And this gave them an opportunity to do it by probably big bucks to the National Urban League,” Walters says. “The result is that the Urban League gets put into a situation where they can’t refuse to acknowledge this. And so they do it. But, they shouldn’t do it because there ought to be an etiquette and understanding in the civil rights community, which says when one organization goes out and launches a principled protest against a company or an entity, then the others should reframe from acknowledging those [companies] until the air clears. There ought to be at least an ethic among them that says that.”
NAACP Interim President Dennis Hayes has issued a statement criticizing Eli Lilly, saying, ‘’Discriminatory practices whether in policy or experience should not be tolerated, are against the law and do not make good business sense…Companies have much to lose by improperly addressing offensive behavior of staffers and fostering a culture of unequal treatment.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit say that the company has many racial “minority” friendly policies but that they were rarely applied.
At least one alleged incident involves a noose threat. Lead plaintiff Cassandra Welch had worked for the company 12 years when she was fired in 2004 after complaining to Lilly’s human resources department about alleged discrimination by several managers.
Welch said she found a Black doll with a noose around its neck after raising complaints, according to the NAACP statement, which also said Welch was fired after being accused of sending falsified e-mails to a co-worker about non-Eli Lilly business.
The Urban League’s plan to honor the company amidst the controversy is reminiscent of a similar situation two years ago. That’s when leading Black activist Al Sharpton announced that his National Action Network was giving an annual award to Tyson Foods, then the target of a lawsuit in which employees alleged segregated bathrooms with a “Whites Only” sign, the pervasive use of the n-word, “monkey,” “boy” and “watermelon” insults of Black people, and a threat with a noose.
Sharpton quickly and publicly withdrew the award after being made aware of the suit by an NNPA reporter working on the 2005 story. He also withdrew an award to Wal-Mart, which was fighting multiple lawsuits alleging various worker violations.
Similarly, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. has not only resisted receiving money from Wal-Mart, but he returned a contribution of more than $30,000 from British Petroleum (BP) in 2005 and announced a boycott of the company at his annual convention that year.
Morial gave no indication that the NUL is considering withdrawal of the award to Lilly, slated to be made on Thursday, Nov. 15.
That’s the night before a coalition of major Black organizations have planned a protest march on the U. S. Department of Justice against a rising level of racial violence, hate expressions and unequal criminal, economic and social justice toward African-Americans across the nation.
With highly publicized incidents fueling righteous indignation, activists have taken on war-like strategies, calling for unified protests at various pressure points, including court houses and this week’s march on the U. S. Department of Justice.
“You have a conflict here between the organizational interests and the coalition interests,” says Walters, “all of whom are working together for the interest of the whole community.”