By Ellen McGirt
May 31, 2016

It’s hard to be a person of a certain age – of any hue – and not remember the epic unfolding of the original “Roots” miniseries, which aired over eight consecutive nights in 1977. More than half of the population of the U.S. tuned in for at least part of it. It left an imprint. Born in an era when the miniseries was an innovation in appointment television, it remains a high water mark for collective conversation. The series made LeVar Burton a household name (it wasn’t just his first acting job, it was his first audition) and cleverly ratcheted up the tension by casting then-beloved white father figures like Ed Asner, Lorne Greene, and Lloyd Bridges as villains.

The modern version, which debuted last night on the History Channel, unfolds as a series, but now also in Twitter chatter, Facebook shares, and think pieces, and it has to face stiff competition from a nearly endless supply of on-demand entertainment. The story was painful then, and now, with higher production values and better historical references, even more so. But taken side by side as moments in time, the two “Roots” offer poignant benchmarks of the civil rights movement, which was still top of mind in the 1970s. Dreams in so many ways realized, yet in so many other ways deferred.

For black executives of a certain age, however, the dreams deferred are all too familiar. It is an additional tax on the psyches of those who have found success – straddling two worlds and caring about those who haven’t. “Most people are living in the conditions of black America,” says hip hop artist, author, and producer Chuck D. “You’re there as their rock. You can’t run from the issue of racism.”

Charles Phillips, the CEO of Infor, a $2.8 billion enterprise software firm, feels the obligation. Two years ago, a New Year’s Eve chat about the Ava Duvernay film Selma convinced a small group of black executive friends to coordinate showings for 300,000 kids of color around the country. “We thought it would be great to expose more people. And it just kind of happened.”

Phillips, who is on the board of Viacom, booked the theaters and arranged for discount tickets. Scores of local executives tapped their own networks and arranged transportation and, most importantly, recruited kids.

Phillips also has a personal philanthropy called Phillips Charitable Organizations that provides emergency grants for, among other people, cash-strapped single mothers. There is virtually no red tape. “We’ve helped over 100 so far,” he says. For all his success, he knows what they’re up against. “These stories are in my family,” he says.


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