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Martin Luther King Jr.

From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter: Consortium Inaugural Fellow Rev. Dr. C. Vernon Mason Reflects on How Far We’ve Come, How Far We Have to Go

Although separated by nearly 55 years and more than 800 miles, C. Vernon Mason can still distinctly recollect his time at Atlanta’s Morehouse College — a period defined by the social, racial and political unrest that was then sweeping the nation and world. 

“President Kennedy was assassinated my sophomore year, November of 1963, and even though we had the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Vietnam War was raging, and there was social upheaval all over the country,” Mason, who is now an ordained Baptist minister and professor, recalls. 

Yet, amidst all this turmoil, Mason says, “you had this bright light.”

“When The Consortium came to Morehouse, there was a lot of buzz. People would come out of the interviews and would be buzzing around campus about this exciting program that had this mission of breaking barriers in corporate America,” he says. For a young, determined black man like Mason, the organization presented an unparalleled opportunity to pursue both his personal and professional ambitions. 

“You had a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who was thoughtful enough and had insight [into] what needed to be done by graduate business schools and corporate America in the mid-60s,” Mason says. “It was compelling, and it was something that as a young student in school — with the background that I had — just drew me to apply.”

Faith and Injustice

Rev. Dr. C Vernon Mason
Rev. Dr. C Vernon Mason

A child of the South, Mason spent his early years in the small towns of Marion, Hope and Helena, Ark. His mother taught English at Marion’s J. S. Phelix High School, and his father worked for the Farmers Home Administration, assisting black farmers in the region. 

From an early age, Mason was immersed in the world of education, helping instill in him a life-long passion and appreciation for learning. “The story goes that my mother didn’t want to leave me with a babysitter, so she took me to school when I was three,” he says. “So I started first grade at 3 years old.” The experience having had quite the impact on him, Mason says he still remembers many of the teachers he had during that time, including his first-grade teacher Mrs. Mozella Marrs.

If education was the home of Mason’s childhood, however, then church was its foundation. 

He and his family attended Rising Sun Baptist Church in Marion, where he says his faith journey, as well as his thirst for justice, began. As a black child growing up in the South in the 1950s, the two were inseparable, Mason says.  

A World War II veteran, successful entrepreneur and local civic leader, Isadore Banks was the Mason’s next-door neighbor when he went missing in the summer of 1954. “I was seven when he was lynched,” Mason says. “That incident was something that planted a seed, even at that early age, of injustice. So, faith and that kind of experience really connected in that way for me as a child.” 

The murder of Mr. Banks, the lynching of Emmett Till and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Montgomery Bus Boycott all had a significant impact on Mason, shaping his faith and even his life’s trajectory. “Those things in early childhood were very foundational for me,” he notes. “All of that had a profound effect on me in terms of both faith and justice.”

So when, as a college student, he heard about a new program focused on righting some of the wrongs of the day — specifically improving access and opportunities for African American men in corporate America — Mason felt as if everything in his past was aligning. There was only one problem: He was a political science major.

“It seemed that every business major, every economics major and everybody who was doing anything business related at Morehouse was applying to this program, and there I was, a poli-sci person applying,” he says. Despite having taken a few business classes, Mason had no delusions of being accepted.

Vernon Mason quote

The day he received the telegram informing him he was to be a part of The Consortium’s inaugural class he describes as “one of the happiest” of his life. 

“I just started crying. I put Sam Cooke on; he sang A Change Is Gonna Come. I was jumping up and down, because what it meant was the beginning of the fulfillment of a dream,” Mason says. “It was something that you could do and feel proud about, that you were going to be part of something that was transformative.”

The next summer, Mason joined 20 other black men for The Consortium’s first summer program at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU). There, he bonded with his classmates and peers and spent time with Dr. Schoen himself before going to Indiana to earn his MBA at Kelley School of Business

“All of us were at WashU for the summer, then we had seven students who remained at WashU, seven students who went to the University of Wisconsin Madison and seven of us who went to Indiana University in Bloomington,” says Mason, recalling the stark differences between his undergraduate campus and Indiana. “Morehouse at that point had, I think, about 800 or 1,000 students total, so when we hit Indiana University, with 40,000 or 45,000 students, it was the largest campus I had ever been on. It was a city.”

Impressed by the sheer size of the campus as well as the support he received from Dean Panschar and others, Mason speaks highly of his time at Kelley. “That whole educational experience, and then the summer that I had interning at Cummins Engine Company in Columbus, Ind., was very, very positive,” he says. 

Mason credits The Consortium with many of the opportunities he’s been afforded since that time, which have included working as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and at a private law firm as a managing attorney. 

But in 1995, Mason once again felt the pull of education and faith — this time combined — and enrolled in the Master of Divinity program at New York Theological Seminary (NYTS), after which he pursued a Doctor of Ministry degree. On March 28, 1999, he was ordained a Baptist minister at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Mason has been part of the core faculty at NYTS ever since — an experience that has also included running the institution’s at-risk youth program, Youth Turn, and has allowed him to combine his zeal for education and justice. 

“I credit The Consortium basically with my careers. That’s how important it was. It also informed as well as supported and erected a lot of the lessons and the practices that I have adopted in terms of justice,” says Mason, who is now director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at NYTS.

Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement

Mason has attempted to share these lessons with others in whatever ways he can. For the last several years, this has taken the form of a Black Lives Matter class, which he was inspired to develop following the acquittal of George Zimmerman. 

Mason was surprised to learn that no other seminaries were teaching a similar course. “I saw it as a vacuum,” he recalls. “Why wouldn’t we, teaching faith leaders, be involved in something which was as clear a justice matter as that.”

The class received a warm reception when he began teaching it in 2016, and it has since become one of the most sought after courses taught at the seminary. Interest has grown even more this year, which Mason attributes to the backlash and nationwide push for racial justice following the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed black men and women.

Mason sees the class, which examines racism and racial justice through an interdisciplinary and theological lens, as an opportunity to link the civil rights movement of his youth with the modern-day Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. “For a number of years, I have taught the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement, and I see not only the parallels but the continuation of that with the BLM movement,” he says. “I don’t see a break in what Dr. King and young people did during that period and what is being done now.”

“What began as a hashtag is now a global movement that has received support in every state in this union and around the world,” Mason adds. “I believe and pray that change will come.”

He also believes The Consortium has an even greater role to play in helping usher in this change. 

“Even though The Consortium has done its job even better than I think Dr. Sterling Schoen could have envisioned, there is tremendous opportunity to do even more,” says Mason. “I think it’s one of the most important programs in this country — and it’s needed now more than ever.”

Despite the need for progress, he believes it’s important to acknowledge how far we’ve come. 

“When I look at my lived experience in the United States of America, I think the accomplishments of The Consortium should be even more acknowledged. Starting from an idea that began in 1965, with  this inaugural group of 21 people, to now have 10,000 graduates with almost a half a billion dollars in scholarships, that is something that should be lifted up as one of the most successful programs in this country,” Mason says. “When Dr. Schoen first examined this issue, there was zero representation of African American men in middle and upper management in corporate America, so the impact has been phenomenal. I don’t think there’s anything comparable; The Consortium stands alone.”

Even now, so far removed from his MBA days, Mason continues to sing The Consortium’s praises while doing his part to advance the mission that helped guide both his life and career. 

“In 1966, I could not have imagined that The Consortium would go from 21 to 10,000 alumni,” he says. “That’s what we would call, at a Baptist Church, a Hallelujah moment.”

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