Photograph by Rebecca Hale
Photograph by Rebecca Hale

'You Have to Grab This Moment'

A business icon stresses the importance of finding common ground during times of increased divisiveness in America.

This story is part of The Race Issue, a special issue of National Geographic that explores how race defines, separates, and unites us. Tell us your story with #IDefineMe.

Ann Fudge was a high school junior in segregated Washington, D.C., when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on April 4, 1968. In the days that followed, while standing outside a Rhode Island Avenue convenience store waiting for her grandfather, an armed guardsman pointed a bayonet at Fudge’s chest and asked her if she knew a curfew had been declared. The shop owner and her grandfather rushed outside to vouch for her, but the experience left an indelible mark. One of only four black girls in a class of one hundred at Immaculata Preparatory School, Fudge made a commitment to excel in all that she set out to accomplish. She went on to attend Simmons College and Harvard Business School, becoming one of the top women business leaders in America.

Fudge spent several years as chairman and chief executive officer of Young & Rubicam, a global advertising agency, and has led several businesses, including a five-billion-dollar division of Kraft Foods. Now, 50 years later, Fudge says that painful experience empowered her to push the boundaries of success. But she is hopeful that her five grandchildren will not be confronted with the same racial intolerance.

Fudge sat down for a conversation with National Geographic Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg to discuss the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., the current racial climate in America, and the importance of communicating across differences.

This story helps launch a series about racial, ethnic, and religious groups and their changing roles in 21st-century life. The series runs through 2018 and will include coverage of Muslims, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans.

Susan Goldberg: Talk about your experience following the assassination of Dr. King.

Ann Fudge: You experience the heartbreak of this person that you felt was making a difference. My parents had gone to the March on Washington. I didn’t go, but I still keep pictures that were taken. They’re faded now. Right away the climate was ugly. You talk to other black people—they’ve witnessed ugly things as well.

Observing the change in the city afterward was stark. It gave me a sense of incredible empowerment. I grew up in a time when there weren’t even black bus drivers. We had trolleys then, or streetcars as we called them. A year or so later you saw black people in jobs you never thought you’d see, even in stores like Garfinckel’s, where they had a few black salespeople. These were visible changs that left an imprint. I remember my parents saying, “You have to grab this moment. It’s a moment in time. And we don’t know when the door will close again.” I remember that. It’s one of those things I think, I know, was a driver for me personally to make a difference and to do something different. When you think about moments in time and history, you don’t understand the history until decades later. At this juncture in my life, I think about it a lot. I think about legacy. I think about what I want for my five grandchildren. I don’t ever want them to experience what I did as a teenager. And so when I see what’s happening today, it pains me beyond measure. I say, Oh my God, are we going to go through this again?

Susan Goldberg: Does it feel like that is what’s happening? What would make it better?

Ann Fudge: People of goodwill have to move forward in a positive way. We cannot get sucked into criticizing every day what somebody’s doing that we don’t like. Things are happening, but what are we doing that’s positive? I work with girls at Mother Caroline Academy in Dorchester. I don’t want them to have bad experiences. Many of them are from immigrant families. You have to keep them positive. I’m just going to focus on making a difference and impacting what I can, getting my friends engaged. Thank God I live in a space and grew up at a time where my network of friends is incredibly broad and diverse, both in the U.S. and internationally. I'm grateful that I had these associations and not the fear which may have consumed some of my friends in Washington, D.C. When you don’t have exposure to people who are good, no matter what color you are, it could cloud how you think about differneces and fuel your skepticism.

Susan Goldberg: Why do you think you emerged from a pretty scary moment when somebody takes out a weapon and is pointing it at you with more strength, when other people might just retreat? What pushed you?

Ann Fudge: Growing up watching things on television during that period in the ’60s and knowing that only by coming together would things change. Washington was very segregated when I grew up. So you don’t know what you don’t know. And then you make friends. And you realize we truly are human beings if we can just step beyond our fears and talk honestly about things which affect us all. It can't happen unless and until we get to a point where it’s not just black folks talking about it among themselves or white folks talking to each other. The challenge is that it’s a global issue in every country. We find ways to separate people or to make one group better than the other.

I saw things on television in the ’50s and ’60s that are seared in my head, whether it was the water hoses or the dogs. I feel like I’m back there again. I feel like I’m back to where we were before. And that’s not a good feeling. For some, it’s probably been nascent. Here’s the part that concerns me most. It’s almost like, to make America great again, we have to do “this” with “these” people. We're in "this" together; "these" people are US. To act otherwise creates a dyname which negates us all. I am hopeful. But I do worry.

Susan Goldberg: What can we do to try to make things better?

Ann Fudge: We’re going to have to work with each other, especially with our young people. The conversation and words that kids are using in middle school and high school now seem worse than when we were trying to desegregate schools. And so, if it can happen in so-called "nice communities," what’s happening in other places? We have to be very sensitive to what our young people are listening to and hearing and how they’re behaving. It has to start at home. Parents are going to say what they think. We can’t tell parents what to say. We hope they would be more open-minded. That’s where it starts.