As Georgia Goes, So Goes the Nation | Opinion

When Maine was considered a bellweather state decades ago, the political adage was, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation." Now that 43 states are attempting to following Georgia's voter suppression efforts the expression should be, "As Georgia goes, so goes the nation."

Georgia proudly and deservedly boasts that it is now home to 34 Fortune 1000 companies—up four from 2019 and 18 Fortune 500 firms. Atlanta itself is now ranked third in the nation for the number of Fortune 500 firms, tied with Chicago. These great global enterprises have been trailblazers in global markets, technology pioneers and leaders in social impact issues from sustainability and gun safety to racial justice and social harmony.

Many of the CEOs of these enterprises are our personal friends. However, even friends can use candid advice from other friends. Could our Georgian business leader friends become too cautious if not even "over-lawyered"? At the very least, UPS should have done more to simply educate their employees and encourage them and stakeholders to speak out. The right to fair elections is so fundamental to our society and our democracy that every company should have been willing to speak up.

How could these CEOs mute their voices as the GOP controlled legislature to overrule local election boards, reduced 33 ballot drop boxes to nine and denied water to people in long lines? Both Google and Microsoft recently announced new regional offices in Atlanta. Perhaps it is time for their work force to demand reconsideration of such corporate moves.

Former Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. was credited for anointing Atlanta as "the city too busy to hate." He ended Jim Crow segregation at City Hall on his first day in office in 1962. In 1964, he was the only southern elected official to endorse the Civil Rights Act. In December 1964, when Martin Luther King Jr. accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Allen and Ralph McGill, publisher of The Atlanta Constitution, organized a banquet to celebrate MLK and got the blessing of Coca-Cola patriarch Robert Woodruff to the shock of the white business community

Former director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover redoubled his efforts to subvert and discredit MLK. Then Coca-Cola President J. Paul Austin famously declared, "It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city the refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner. We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta need the Coca-Cola Company."

White business leaders then signed on but Allen still suspected they would not show up or dispatch surrogates. He announced, "Most of you will be out of town or sick and you'll send someone to represent you. Don't let it worry you, though. The mayor will be there." Despite apprehension in the business community due to KKK threats, the reception was held January 27, 1965. The sellout crowd of 1,500 guests was chock-full of Georgia business stars. Time magazine celebrated Atlanta as "long been one of the South's most enlightened cities."

Following historic election turnout and efficient fraud free ballot counting in the fall, the nation is confused over the relative public silence of Georgia's CEOs in the aftermath of what The New York Times referred to as "the most extensive contraction of ballot access in generations."

"This really became the case of rural republican Georgia trying to remind Atlanta that this is still the South," one prominent business leader told us privately.

Democratic State Senator Jen Jordan described it "like a Christmas tree of goodies for voter suppression. And let's be clear, some of the most dangerous provisions have to do with the takeover of the local elections boards."

The U.S. flag flies at half-staff over the Capitol building in honor of the victims of a mass shooting in Georgia. DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp quickly signed a harsh bill into law recently which only passed the legislature on strict party line votes—with no consultation or review by the business community or likely even the governor himself.

"Yes we've been clear we need laws that make it easy to vote and hard to cheat. The business community has all stayed together on this and working actively behind the scenes with the governor and speaker to ensure a best-case solution," one usually forward-thinking CEO reassured us last week.

A dismayed Georgian Fortune 100 CEO confided in us that the governor's recent sanction "only furthers the Big Lie that Trump lost due to unproven election fraud and makes Atlanta a less appealing town for relocation."

"I believe many prominent business leaders are afraid to engage in what they consider a partisan political issue. It is a partisan issue in the sense that the Republican Party is committed to minority voter suppression as a primary strategy," a Fortune 50 CEO from outside Georgia said.

If that cowardice was the sentiment of the 1960s Georgian business leadership, Atlanta would have looked like Alabama's Bull Connor had Martin Luther King been arrested again when he returned from Oslo.

The Atlanta business community could use fewer lawyers or PR experts and instead revive the spirit of 1960s business leaders. Those business leaders did not tiptoe around racial injustice fearful of offending right-wing politicians. Nor were they followers of bigoted constituents. They were leaders—righteous leaders.

National business trade groups should recapture their wisdom and courage from the fall election aftermath that the fortification of democracy is not a partisan issue. A fair, free democratic society is America's greatest economic resource and a pillar of national security as well as our national purpose.

"Believe it or not, I almost have more faith in business than I have in the church, politics, almost anything else I do. And the reason is that there's more freedom and there's more courage in our free enterprise system. There's a capacity to rise from all kinds of need, and to imagine and to create glory in the midst of darkness and clouds," former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young said at a Yale CEO forum two years ago.

Teri Plummer McClure served as general counsel, chief human resources and senior vice president labor relations and communications for UPS' more than 500,000 employees worldwide. She was also a member of the company's Management Committee, an operations manager and a UPSer for almost 25 years.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is a senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management and Lester Crown professor of leadership practice as well as a former Georgia resident and former member of the Governors Personnel Oversight Commission for the state of Georgia and Dekalb County Economic Development Commission.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.