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The Republic Archives / Russian Orthodox Archbishop Nikodim, second from right, made a point to Central Junior High School students, from left, seated, Ron Wynn, Steve Bluhm, Sharon Kirts and Becky Hodler, during a visit to the city arranged by the National Council of Churches in 1963. Looking on were, from left, standing, Richard Stoner, of Cummins Engine Co.; J. Irwin Miller, Columbus resident and president of the National Council of Churches; Dr. Paul Anderson, an interpreter with the NCC; and James McKinney, principal of the school. The visit drew some criticism from some local residents who objected to the presence of someone from a Communist country being invited to the city.
Quite a few opinions have been expressed of late about the stance taken by officials of Cummins Inc. in opposition to a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.
Some have been in support of the company’s position that such a ban would harm employees and efforts to attract and retain the most talented people.
Others have questioned the position, some noting that the company is involving itself in a social issue that should be restricted to the public domain. Some critics suggest that the action does not reflect the views of all those in the Cummins “family.” Still others are angry because of their moral or religious beliefs.
There is a certain familiarity to this situation and the opinions expressed about it. We’ve been down this path before.
Throughout much of its history officials of Bartholomew County’s largest employer have been deeply involved in local affairs. That involvement is certainly obvious. Look about you and there are not many aspects of life not affected by the company’s presence.
Through its first 40 years, Columbus and Cummins were largely white entities. Workers from different nationalities were rare. So were blacks.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the company decided to change its face, literally. Under the leadership of J. Irwin Miller, who was then chairman of the board, Cummins began a recruiting program aimed at attracting young and creative individuals.
In one sense, the program was internally driven. It became external when local residents noticed that some of the recruits were black.
“I helped recruit a young black man named Bob Johnson,” recalled Randy Tucker, former community relations director at Cummins. “He came to Columbus with his family and began seeking a place to live. We had a list of landlords who might have openings, and I gave it to Bob.”
A few days later, Tucker got
a phone call from the new hire. Everyone on the list had told him there were no vacancies.
As it turned out, there were, but landlords either wouldn’t rent
to blacks or were afraid of reactions if they did.
Cummins officials discussed the problem and came up with a solution.
“Ben Bush (one of the company’s corporate attorneys) and I called the landlords on our list and told them if they weren’t willing to rent to blacks then they would be taken off our list,” Tucker said. “I remember one said he was sure we were making that up, and the company’s top executives knew nothing about such a policy. Ben got in touch with Don Tull (the company’s president) and put him on the line with the landlord. Don repeated that this was indeed company policy.”
While the ban on renting to blacks in Columbus was eventually broken, other barriers to becoming a part of the community remained.
Ted Marston, who had joined Cummins in 1964 as a human resources director, was given the charge to recruit women and members of minority groups. While blacks might have been able to rent an apartment or house, they had difficulty finding restaurants that would serve them.
Marston had to change that situation, but it wasn’t easy. “There were two or three who were willing to serve blacks, but most of the others hemmed and hawed about making any kind of decision,” he said.
In a sense, Columbus was a microcosm of what was happening across the country during the Civil Rights movement.
Miller was very much involved in that national movement, helping to gain legislative support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Some admirers have said that had it not been for Miller the Columbus of today would be little changed from the mid-20th century.
Tucker and Marston don’t agree. “There were many others, people like Clarence Hamilton (former chairman of Hamilton Cosco, forerunner of Dorel) and Bill Laws (former pastor of First Presbyterian Church) who played key roles in breaking down those racial barriers,” Tucker said.
Marston said, “Actually, I would say that the involvement of Bill Laws was what turned the tide.”
There is no question that Miller could bring about change. He stirred up considerable resentment locally when he invited the Russian Orthodox Archbishop Nikodim to Columbus, where he met with educators and students. Several local pastors signed a petition criticizing the invitation because the church leader was from a communist country.
Cummins also became involved in social issues on an international scale. In the late 1970s the company held a 20 percent share of the market in heavily segregated South Africa and was asked by the government to build manufacturing facilities there.
Cummins agreed, according to an official company history “The Engine That Could” by Jeffrey Cruikshank and David B. Sicilia, with the provision that it have an integrated workforce. The country refused, warning that if Cummins continued to stand on that principle, South Africa would turn to a competitor.
That happened. Cummins lost its market share, but as Chairman Henry Schacht explained to the writers, “Our view was that you don’t need to have all the business in the world. You have certain fundamental principles — and if they can’t be followed, then it’s not business you want.”
Columbus and its people have changed considerably over the past half century. It appears that the principles of Cummins Inc. have remained the same.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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