Herman Cain's Political Education
By DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON And NEIL KING JR.
When Herman Cain entered Atlanta's Morehouse College in the fall of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. had just delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. During his first semester, four black girls were killed in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing. Young African-Americans flocked to Dr. King's call for nonviolent action or its more radical offshoots.
Mr. Cain steered clear of the strife boiling around him. The son of a chauffeur to the former chairman of Coca-Cola Co., Mr. Cain pursued his own self-advancement with steady focus.
"I wasn't determined to make social change," Mr. Cain said in an interview. "I wanted to earn some change…I wanted to make some money."
Mr. Cain's plain-spoken charm has shaken up the Republican presidential nomination contest and pushed him high in the polls, a surprise success diminished only slightly by allegations of sexual harassment relating to his lobbying work in the 1990s. Yet for many, he remains an enigmatic figure defined by his time as a businessman and talk-radio host. Left unclear is how the events of his life shaped his political beliefs.
The answer, based on interviews with Mr. Cain and his classmates at the historically black Morehouse, can be found in a value system common among an older generation of African-Americans: work hard, seize every educational opportunity, always go to church, never get arrested and rely on no one but yourself.
Mr. Cain's closest brush with the turmoil of that era, based on his own recollection, was when he and a group of high-school friends almost refused an order to go the back of a bus, but ultimately complied.
For many who suffered some of the worst of the South's racial abuses, blocked economically by Jim Crow laws and excluded from the state Democratic parties in the region, that single-minded preoccupation with self-improvement was a defining characteristic.
Until the middle decades of the 20th century, African-Americans in the South who found ways to vote were generally aligned with the Republican Party—the party of Abraham Lincoln.
By the end of the 1960s, the vast majority of African-Americans had become committed Democrats in response to the national party's embrace of civil-rights legislation. But vestiges of the GOP tradition remained, especially in urban areas such as Atlanta.
"A lot of us in the South at the time were Republicans," said Ed Rutland, a classmate of Mr. Cain's. "My father was a Republican. In fact, I was a Republican."
Mr. Cain's credo of self-determination is the core message of his campaign—a promise to solve the country's most complex problems with what he sees as uncomplicated common sense, such as his 9-9-9 tax plan. He believes that, with hard work, every person can become a "CEO of self" and achieve great personal wealth.
On the campaign trail, he has defied what he perceives as political correctness, sparring with critics who questioned his lack of involvement in civil rights and battling reports that he sexually harassed several women in the late 1990s, some of whom were employees. Giving no quarter, he has castigated his accusers and the journalists who dug into the claims.
"The media's rules say you have to act in a certain way," Mr. Cain wrote in a blog posting earlier this month, referring to how he had responded to the accusations. "I am well aware of these rules. And I refuse to play by them."
When asked during a lengthy interview in late October to describe his moment of political awakening, Mr. Cain turned the conversation to his economic aspirations. He was 16 years old and learned he would have to earn at least $10,000 a year to qualify for an American Express card.
"And I remember thinking to myself, 'One day, I want to make $20,000 a year,'" he said. "So my goal materialistically was I wanted two American Express cards."
By his own account, Mr. Cain didn't formulate his political views until he was in his late 50s, after two decades working his way up the career ladder at Coca-Cola, Pillsbury Co. and Godfather's Pizza. From there he became a restaurant-industry lobbyist, a motivational speaker and a talk-radio host.
Mr. Cain said he can't recall being in discussions about civil-rights activities while at Morehouse, or attending sit-ins and demonstrations in Atlanta during his high-school and college years. The presidential contender said he can't remember whom he voted for in some presidential elections from the 1970s, and that he didn't register as a Republican for another three decades.
"I didn't even know what a conservative or liberal was," he said of his college years.
"Herman was a good student," said one of his classmates, William Howard, now a Baptist pastor in Newark, N.J. "But he was not particularly outspoken on any of the great issues that were confronting us at the time."
Both of Mr. Cain's parents left poor farms in the Tennessee and Georgia countryside at 18 years of age. His father, Luther Cain Jr., moved the family from Memphis to archly segregated Atlanta in the late 1940s, when Herman Cain was two years old.
His mother worked as a maid. His father got jobs as a janitor, a barber and finally as the driver and personal assistant to Robert W. Woodruff, the legendary Coca-Cola executive and one of the most powerful business figures in the South until his death in 1985.
That job changed the family's fortunes. It also had a formative impact on the young Herman Cain.
Mr. Woodruff periodically made gifts of cash and Coca-Cola stock to Luther Cain, who worked for the Coke magnate from the late 1950s until around the time of his own death in the 1970s. Breaking into a bass imitation of the CEO, Mr. Cain describes how the family got help paying for his college education: "Luther, I hear your son is over at Morehouse. Here's a little something to help you out with that tuition." Some close relatives of Mr. Woodruff said in interviews they are supporting Mr. Cain's presidential campaign.
Mr. Cain said Mr. Woodruff's wealth impressed on him how powerfully the free market rewards success. His dad's work as a well-paid servant also left its mark. "I wanted to be comfortable differently," he said. "That's what inspired me to make good grades. That's what inspired me to go to college."
During Mr. Cain's high-school years, Atlanta was ablaze with civil-rights demonstrations, the most dramatic of which were student marches and sit-ins aimed at desegregating lunch counters and department stores. Large numbers of young people were arrested, but Mr. Cain said his parents told him to stay away—guidance many young African-Americans got from their parents and teachers at the time.
In the city-bus incident, Mr. Cain recalls, he and some high-school friends were told by the driver to move to the back as white passengers piled aboard.
"We were just old enough to be belligerent enough to refuse," Mr. Cain said. "But we decided we didn't want to go to jail. One day we wanted to get a good job. We didn't want to give the cops an opportunity to shoot one of us saying we were being disorderly…So reluctantly we moved to the back of the bus."
By the time he was at Morehouse, Mr. Cain worried he might disappoint his father's boss. "Mr. Woodruff wouldn't have been too pleased if Luther's son was in jail because he was throwing bottles and demonstrating," he said.
Mr. Cain realized he had arrived less well equipped for college than many other students, despite having graduated second in his high-school class. He took remedial reading and worked weekends at an auto-repair shop and stocking shelves at a grocery store his dad opened as an investment. He earned a reputation as a striver who was sensitive about his economic status but largely indifferent to the civil-rights drama around him.
"Herman's thoughts were always about making himself better than he was," said Walter Burns, a classmate who is now a pastor at a Baptist church outside Atlanta. "He abhorred his economic station."
Roswell Jackson, a retired book salesman in Teaneck, N.J., and Mr. Cain's closest friend at Morehouse, recalls a man who was gregarious, friendly and a moderate drinker. "Herman would be among the first on the dance floor, whether he happened to be a good dancer or not," he said.
Some Morehouse graduates have criticized Mr. Cain for being disengaged from the civil-rights movement. Horace Bohannon Jr., who sometimes shared lecture notes with Mr. Cain as an underclassman and later became a follower of Stokely Carmichael and his "black power" movement, said he perceived in Mr. Cain a disdain for students who became more deeply involved in the turmoil of those days. "We were hellbent on changing this society and the structure of the South," he said. "There was sort of a resentment toward us by Herman."
But others from that era say that many students at the school focused on preparing for careers, and that some faculty members discouraged open participation in marches and similar activity.
"Most of the Morehouse fellows did not participate," said Wesley D. Clement, a classmate of Mr. Cain who is now an eye surgeon in Charlotte, N.C. "Your main target and goal was to prepare yourself for business and life. Not that we were ignorant of what was going on or didn't favor what was going on. But we were not involved in the things that some people would have called more radical at that time."
Mr. Cain said he was far from oblivious to the country's racial inequities and that without the civil-rights movement his career options would have been limited.
Mr. Cain avoided some of the most heated moments of the 1960s, and he said his recollections of that era are hazy. He said he doesn't recall being aware of Dr. King, a 1948 graduate of Morehouse, ever visiting the campus, including a convocation during Mr. Cain's senior year at which Dr. King was the featured speaker and the glee club performed. Mr. Cain sang baritone for the glee club all four years at Morehouse.
In his 2011 book, "This is Herman Cain!", the candidate appears to mix up facts relating to the desegregation of the universities of Georgia and Alabama. Mr. Cain also mistakenly said in the October interview that a high-profile protest against a restaurant owned by Lester Maddox, a white supremacist and later Georgia governor, occurred before he arrived on campus, rather than while he was there.
"All of that preceded me being in college," Mr. Cain said. "I never participated in anything like that."
A spokesman for Mr. Cain said later that Mr. Cain stands by his recollections.
After Morehouse, Mr. Cain took a job as a civilian ballistics analyst with the Navy. While working there, the federal government paid for him to pursue a graduate degree at Purdue University, where he earned a master's in computer science.
Five years after graduating, he returned to Atlanta and entered corporate life with a lower-management job his dad helped secure for him at Coca-Cola. Fearing he would forever be known there as the son of Mr. Woodruff's chauffeur, Mr. Cain followed his boss to a job at Pillsbury in 1978.
He was soon running a division of Burger King, then was put in charge of reviving Pillsbury's wobbly subsidiary, Godfather's Pizza, which he eventually went on to buy with a number of partners.
Mr. Cain was such a rarity as a black man in the upper echelons of the restaurant business that a 1989 article in Restaurant News called him "the Jackie Robinson of the food-service chain industry."
He said he drew few political interpretations from his career, except that his success demonstrated to him that racial barriers for African-Americans had largely fallen away. He regarded his achievements simply as proof of what personal focus and hard work could accomplish. "I was totally apolitical," he said.
That began to change when he was living in Omaha, Neb., where Godfather's is based. In 1988, Mr. Cain believed a push in Congress to raise the minimum wage imperiled his efforts to rescue the company. "I'm going, 'Wait a minute. I fixed all the stuff inside the company that I can fix, and now I'm going to get hit upside the head by the government?'" he said.
Then came 1994, the year after Democrats passed an income-tax surcharge to reduce the deficit. He says he was stunned when his personal tax bill increased. "It was just a sneak-a-tax,'" he said. "It only affected people of a certain category…That's why I became a conservative."
Mr. Cain said he remained a registered independent until three years later, when the late Republican leader Jack Kemp of New York invited him one afternoon to a political event at Sylvia's, the famed soul-food restaurant in Harlem.
When the group arrived, Mr. Cain said, "this big muscular black guy yelled, 'Black Republicans? You guys must be Uncle Toms.'"
"That statement haunted me for days," he said. As soon as he got back to Omaha, he registered as a Republican for the first time.