In the early ‘70s, in the shadow of the civil rights era, Kenneth Chenault often stayed up late talking with other Black students at Bowdoin College in Maine about how to fight for racial equality. Most argued you needed to push from the outside. They wanted to become activists and educators. Chenault was different. He thought it was best to work from inside the corridors of power, recalled former classmate Geoffrey Canada.

“We didn’t think you could knock those doors down,” Canada said.

Chenault did. He went on to run American Express for 17 years, one of just 19 Black chief executives ever at a Fortune 500 company.

Chenault recently used that same formula of fighting for change when he and another Black chief executive, Kenneth Frazier of the pharmaceutical giant Merck, helped push much of corporate America to publicly oppose the restrictive voting rights bills being considered in dozens of states.

Chenault and Frazier — friends who first met at Harvard Law School decades ago — are now the leading faces of a campaign seeking to galvanize corporate power and pocketbooks against legislation that critics say is designed to make it harder for minorities to cast ballots.

But whether the inside game that worked for the two men in corporate America will succeed in politics remains in doubt.

One week after it was signed into law, Georgia's Republican-led voting overhaul is facing backlash from a growing number of voting rights advocates. (Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

In taking on voting legislation in Georgia and elsewhere, Chenault, Frazier and a small group of Black business leaders were able to win the support of a wide array of chief executives and companies, including boldface brands such as Delta Air Lines, Microsoft and Target.

But so far, most corporations haven’t gone beyond supportive statements and applied sustained pressure on lawmakers. And the effort led by Black business executives also has earned the ire of conservative lawmakers, who have derisively accused them of “woke capitalism.” Georgia’s bill was signed into law. A bill in Florida is expected to be signed soon. And other states, such as Texas, are marching forward with their own restrictive voting rules.

The decision by Chenault and Frazier to speak out was shaped by their experiences as Black men and driven by their fears that the basic right to vote is under attack, according to interviews with business associates, friends and former colleagues of the two men. Chenault and Frazier declined to comment for this report.

These two men — revered in the business world — have the power to drive the national conversation in ways that the protests and pleas from activists and church leaders cannot, illustrating for many the importance of diversity at the highest corporate levels. They are Black men who can access the nation’s mostly White C-suites. Their phone calls are returned. Their words carry unusual weight with corporate chieftains.

“They weren’t going to listen to me,” said Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a renowned anti-poverty program in New York, who has remained close friends with Chenault.

But companies listen to Chenault and Frazier, he said.

“I don’t think you could find two more representative examples of corporate America than the two Kens,” he said. “They were behind the scenes, pushing the levers of control.”

It was Frazier who called Debra L. Lee, a former chief executive of Black Entertainment Television and a current board member at four major corporations.

“He asked if I would sign on,” Lee said. “And I said, yes.”

Chenault got Nielsen Holdings chief executive David Kenny to join. They first met working at Bain & Company decades ago.

Chenault mobilized dozens of executives and directors of public companies, said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.

“Ken Chenault called me and he said, ‘This is urgent, and we need to marshal all of our resources to bring attention to this,’” Walker recalled. “I’ve never seen Ken speak with such urgency and such determination.”

Having Chenault and Frazier make the case to companies was essential to the campaign’s success, Walker said.

“White executives are more likely to listen to Black executives than to Black grass-roots activists,” he said.

And, Walker added, “when the Kens call you, you respond.”

***

They almost missed their chance.

Chenault, 69, was at home in New York when he heard about Georgia’s voting law, according to people familiar with events who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private matters. It imposed new ID requirements for mail ballots and other limits, such as a ban on distributing food and water to people in line to vote. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp had signed the bill into law days earlier, at the end of March.

Chenault hadn’t been following the debate. He was still doing deals, three years after retiring from American Express. He serves as a managing director of venture capital firm General Catalyst and sits on the boards of Berkshire Hathaway and Airbnb.

He first learned about Georgia’s law from civil rights activists who told him about their inability to get the attention of Georgia-based companies. And what he learned about the law struck a chord. He didn’t take voting for granted. He was 14 when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned racial discrimination in voting practices. And this new law seemed like a retreat into that ugly past.

Emails started flying between Chenault, Frazier and three other Black business leaders: Bill Lewis, chairman of investment banking at Lazard; Charles Phillips, co-founder of tech investor Recognize; and former Darden Restaurants chief executive Clarence Otis Jr., according to people familiar with the events.

The five of them jumped on the phone together. In a single afternoon, they hatched a plan: Let’s organize a statement from Black business leaders objecting to the Georgia law and asking for support from the rest of the business world.

They rushed to write it up. Judy Smith — a public relations expert who inspired the ABC show “Scandal” — and her team worked to find language that avoided making it a partisan fight. Chenault, in particular, felt the problem with Georgia’s voting law was a moral one.

Three days later, they published a statement backed by 72 Black business leaders that said Georgia’s new voting law and others like it “are both undemocratic and un-American, and they are wrong.” The statement also invited “our colleagues in Corporate America to join us in taking a non-partisan stand for equality and democracy.”

The floodgates opened.

Firms scrambled to join the Black business leaders in objecting to the new law.

Delta Air Lines chief executive Ed Bastian walked back earlier praise of the bill and called the legislation “unacceptable.” James Quincey, the head of Coca-Cola, called it “wrong” and “a step backward.” Major League Baseball said it was moving the summer’s All-Star Game from Georgia to Colorado. Dozens of other firms offered support.

A week later, at an online meeting organized by Yale management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and attended by more than 100 business leaders, some floated the idea of halting donations to politicians who support the bills and even delaying investments in states that pass restrictive measures. No action has been taken so far.

Days after that meeting, Chenault and Frazier’s group was back with a new statement, published in The Washington Post and the New York Times.

Now, hundreds of companies and business leaders had signed on, along with nonprofits and lawyers. The statement called voting “the lifeblood of our democracy.” It said, “We must ensure the right to vote for all of us.” It read as a rebuke to Republicans who insisted that the voting laws are needed for election security.

For some White business leaders, the calls from Chenault and Frazier made them see the voting bills in a new light.

Chenault sounded “genuinely worried” about voting rights, said Kenny of Nielsen.

“I realized they weren’t taking it for granted as much as I was,” he said.

Yet, the statement did not attract public support from some companies with Black chief executives, such as Lowe’s.

The home improvement chain is headed by Marvin Ellison, one of four Black chief executives currently at Fortune 500 firms — and the only one not to sign on. Lowe’s said in a statement that the company supported voting rights instead by giving workers “factual information, company support and scheduling flexibility to take action for themselves and their families.”

At Emory University in Atlanta, law professor Dorothy Brown watched the corporate reactions pile up. It was stunning — and abrupt.

“It’s unfortunate that that’s what it took,” said Brown.

Last summer, many of these same firms standing up for voting rights took out ads and issued statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, she said.

Yet many of them initially stayed quiet about what was happening in Georgia.

“Voices were ignored for a while,” Brown said. “But it’s hard to ignore Ken Chenault and Ken Frazier.”

The question is whether companies will take action, said Cliff Albright, the co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, a national community-organizing group that pressured Georgia companies to do more before the Black business leaders got involved.

“How much further are they willing to go?” Albright said. “And how do we get them to do more than issue statements? They had to be pushed to even do that.”

Chenault and Frazier started out on different paths to the highest levels of corporate America.

Chenault grew up in a middle-class Long Island neighborhood, the son of a dentist and a dental hygienist. Frazier was raised in a rough part of North Philadelphia, the son of a janitor and grandson of a man born into slavery. His mother died when he was 12.

Chenault studied at Bowdoin, a small and mostly White liberal arts school.

Frazier, who is three years younger, graduated from Penn State.

They met at Harvard Law but didn’t become close friends until a few years later, when Frazier contacted Chenault for career advice.

Frazier has repeatedly said the most important thing he’s done in his career occurred at the very start of it. He helped free a Black man who had spent 18 years on death row in Alabama in the murder of a White man, winning an acquittal in a case that Frazier described in a law journal article as “highly circumstantial.”

Both Chenault and Frazier proved to be astute businessmen, their success at major public companies judged mostly by the cold numbers on profit and loss statements.

But they also understood that they faced additional scrutiny as Black men.

“You need to understand eyes are on us,” Chenault told a group of Howard University business school students in the late 1990s, a few years before he got the top job at American Express. “It may not be fair, but it’s real. In business you have to be pragmatic.”

But they have become more outspoken in recent years, prompted by waves of racial and political tumult.

In August 2017, Frazier resigned from President Donald Trump’s American Manufacturing Council, two days after Trump made comments that appeared to equate the actions of white nationalists at a rally in Charlottesville with those of counterprotesters.

Frazier explained his decision in a statement, calling it “a matter of personal conscience” and adding, “I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

Ten other business leaders followed him out the door. The council quickly disbanded.

Trump lashed out in response, tweeting, “Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!”

In March 2020, Chenault resigned from the board of Facebook. The Wall Street Journal reported that he disagreed with Mark Zuckerberg on governance and political policies.

Floyd’s death at the hands of police last year propelled both men to speak out more forcefully.

Frazier said in a CNBC interview that the video of Floyd’s death “could be me or any other African American man.” At a business event, Chenault said: “Incidents of violence and inhumanity against Blacks in this country must stop. We must not stand by and stay silent.”

And both men were among a group of 37 corporate chief executives in December that pledged to hire and promote 1 million Black Americans over 10 years.

But their stance on voting rights has been uniquely controversial.

Now, they are facing blowback.

The restrictive voting legislation in states such as Georgia, Texas and Iowa is supported by Republican lawmakers — a legacy of Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election included widespread fraud.

Many Republicans have attempted to frame complaints about the voting bills as partisan attacks.

Trump called for boycotts of companies opposing the bills, telling supporters in a statement on April 3, “Don’t go back to their products until they relent.”

More recently, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) accused companies of trying to “parrot woke talking points.”

And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) swore off corporate campaign donations in a recent editorial titled, “Your Woke Money Is No Good Here.”

The fight has strained the normally close relationship between businesses and the GOP. And business leaders know the importance of maintaining relationships on both sides of the aisle.

Frazier, 66, has donated $192,000 to Republican political campaigns since 2017 — $23,000 more than he donated to Democratic campaigns, according to federal election records.

Chenault has barely made any political donations in that period.

Now, Black business leaders again face additional scrutiny.

“As Black CEOs and Black leaders, we don’t have the luxury of turning our Blackness on and off. It’s who we are,” said Michael Hyter, president of the Executive Leadership Council, a group aiming to increase the number of Black corporate leaders.

Hyter said companies have asked his group for help addressing voting rights issues. These firms seem drawn to supporting federal legislation that would preemptively prohibit restrictive voting laws, rather than attacking the issue state by state, Hyter said.

In March, the U.S. House passed on a mostly party-line vote an elections bill that would update voting procedures and turn over the redrawing of congressional districts to independent commissions. One of the provisions, for example, would make mail-in ballots universal in all states. The Senate has not yet voted on its version of the bill.

But the potential for federal legislation has not alleviated what feels like an emergency to some people.

A couple of months ago, Chenault and Canada were talking on the phone. They discussed the pandemic and its disproportionate effect on minorities. They talked about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. They talked about the false claims of a stolen election.

“This is going to undermine capitalism and undermine democracy if this is allowed to go on,” Canada recalled Chenault saying.

Canada said the phone call shook him.

He was accustomed to Chenault being asked to speak for Black people in business. That has happened throughout Chenault’s career.

Now, with voting rights under attack, Canada said, it seemed like Chenault and Frazier were being asked to speak for Black people everywhere.

“I was never more proud than when I saw that both of the two Kens were prepared to say, ‘No, this is too far.’”

Tracy Jan contributed to this report.