It was seemingly out of the blue Thursday. But, in fact, Jesse Jackson’s appearance at the Synovus annual shareholders meeting is just one stop on the rounds he is making to corporate America.
The prominent civil rights activist stepped up to a question-and-answer microphone. He explained to those gathered for the meeting at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center that he had already attended annual meetings for Citigroup and Coca-Cola this week, and would do so at AT&T on Friday.
His message: Don’t forget the less fortunate as the United States slowly emerges from the shadow of the Great Recession. That includes individuals, businesses and churches, many of them owned and operated by African-Americans. It encompasses increased lending and hiring of minorities, he said.
“We must put more focus on investment in the private sector, where there’s potential for real growth,” Jackson, 72, said just after the interview, summarizing his thoughts and punctuating them with the word “bailout.”
“Synovus has made a tremendous turnaround, in part because of the bank bailout; it took people who would have sunk to give them a reasonable opportunity, and the management here has made the most of it,” he said of the Columbus-based bankholding company that teetered financially as the U.S. entered the recession in late 2007.
Synovus accepted $968 million through the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to shore up its finances through three years of quarterly losses. The bank, parent company of Columbus Bank and Trust, became profitable again in late 2012, and repaid the TARP money in full last summer. It reported a first-quarter profit of nearly $46 million on Tuesday.
“But they bailed out the banks without linking it to lending for houses and reinvestment and to churches. So many homes and churches are still abandoned, with lots vacant. There must be a connection,” said Jackson, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. president twice in the 1980s.
Specifically, Jackson mentioned the Rev. Jasper Williams Jr., pastor of Salem Bible Church in Atlanta, who apparently has been suffering financially and does some of his banking with Synovus. The company operates Bank of North Georgia in the Atlanta market.
“We have the case of a major church in Atlanta, which was in the crisis,” Jackson said, explaining that as church members suffered during the recession, so did their place of worship.
“They’re working through their crisis. Sometimes it’s a matter of reconstructing and developing, and that’s taking place,” he said of Williams’ church. “This bank has worked with them and we’ve come to express our thanks to them, and congratulate them on their growth, and to say there’s more growth to be had.”
Just after his remarks during the meeting, Synovus Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Kessel Stelling thanked Jackson for his comments on diversity, inclusion and growth, and said he respects him for the points he made. He didn’t go into specifics about a Synovus customer, presumably the church.
Stelling explained that some of the communities his bank operates in across the Southeast have suffered tremendously, with some still feeling the pain of recession.
“I’ve said often, this recession caused some really bad things to happen to some really good people of all races, genders and ethnic background,” said the CEO, who hopes those who have come into contact with Synovus banks during the financial crisis “have seen that spirit of cooperation.”
After the meeting, Jackson mentioned Calvin Smyre and James Blanchard as having a “big hand” in assisting the Atlanta church in its time of need. Smyre is an executive with Synovus and Georgia state representative. Blanchard is the retired chairman and CEO of Synovus.
Jackson also said he will continue to urge other companies — Verizon, HP, Apple and Yahoo among them — to make efforts to be more inclusive with their business decisions and their boards of directors.
“Blacks are a $1.1 trillion market,” he said. “That’s market, money, talent and location. So we want to share in the growth together.”