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Mitchell: In wake of ad, Toyota scholarships honoring Rev. Jesse Jackson

The Rev. Jesse Jackson in June at Rainbow/PUSH. Brian Jackson / Sun-Times files

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An action that Rainbow/PUSH took more than a decade ago in response to a controversial Toyota ad is bearing some impressive fruit today.

In 2001, the Rev. Jesse Jackson threatened a boycott of Toyota over the company’s ad for its RAV4 sport-utility vehicles. The ad showed a close-up of an African-American male’s mouth with an image of a gold RAV-4 on one tooth.

Though the ad didn’t appear on TV, it was on postcards and was distributed to the public.

No boycott was called, but the incident was Jackson’s passport into Toyota’s boardroom. The iconic civil rights leader pointed out that blacks were excluded among Toyota’s dealers, board of directors, suppliers and advertising.

Frankly, when it comes to the lack of diversity at top U.S. corporations and the country’s history of racial discrimination, the abysmal numbers can shake people up.

OPINION

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In 2008, Toyota agreed to spend $8 billion over 10 years to increase minority participation in the company.

Last week, the Japanese auto maker joined forces with the civil rights group to announce it would provide the “first-ever” $75,000 scholarships named in honor of Jesse L. Jackson Sr.

Ten incredibly talented students majoring in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — were selected from hundreds of applicants. The students will receive the $25,000 renewable scholarship each year for three years and must maintain a GPA of 3.0.

Simon Nagata, chief administrative officer of Toyota North America, said the company is proud to recognize invest in the outstanding students.

“The commitment to community service and personal excellence of these future leaders is truly inspiring, and we are excited to be a part of their journey,” Nagata said in announcing the scholarships, which also include a summer co-op, internship program, and mentoring pairing.

“We decided to focus on sophomores,” Jackson said. “A lot of students had the staying power; they didn’t have the money power.

“We didn’t stop there,” he said. “We kept dealing with franchises and suppliers and dealerships. We dug deeper ,and we were able to get these kids jobs working at the company during the summer.”

One of the scholarship recipients, Marielle Cameron, is a graduate of the Lindblom Math and Science Academy on the South Side. She’s now a sophomore at Florida A&M, majoring in business administration. The Toyota scholarship gave her room to breathe.

“I caught an extreme blessing,” Cameron said. “It also helps me to feel more relaxed because the financial barrier that hung over my head when I first came to college is no longer there.

“I can now take my mind off how I am going to pay for college. I can think about matriculating through my college career without any debt.”

Other scholarship winners include: Elias Lee from Alabama, who was home-schooled from fifth through eighth grades; Jared Mitchell, who attends Morehouse College and is studying applied physics and engineering; and Raven Smith from Virginia Beach, who graduated from high school at 16 and is studying chemical engineering.

Despite the criticism Jackson sometimes receives for his tactics, his efforts do make a difference.

So thank you,Rev. Jackson. And thank you, Toyota.

And I suppose I should also thank the person who came up with that offensive Toyota ad in the first place.

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