As we approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day, observed on the third Monday of January each year, we would like to take a moment to highlight Dr. King's work with Cirilo McSween, New York Life’s pioneering first Black agent.
Much of King’s work centers on the basic right to support one’s family. In fact, though the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the March on Washington in 1963 is remembered for King’s dream that individuals be judged by character rather than skin color, it is as much about economic self-determination for African Americans.
McSween, who joined the company in 1957, worked closely with King in the Civil Rights Movement and in creating economic opportunity for African Americans. The two became friends, with McSween ultimately serving as one King’s pallbearers in 1968.
“We are extremely proud of Cirilo McSween for opening the doors at New York Life and his work with Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We will be standing on those legacies for decades to come,” says Agency's Eric Jackson, head of the African American Marketing Unit (AAMU).
Long before he met King, McSween, a former Olympic athlete from Panama, raced to success in his career as a New York Life agent, swiftly earning a place in the Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT). He was the first African American to do so and a qualifying member each year of his career. Providing protection to families and helping them develop legacy wealth became a jumping off point for him. Always standing up for his own rights and others, McSween found a voice in the 1960s alongside King, who appreciated his financial acumen and ability to raise funds, as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
McSween lived a life of surmounting challenging circumstances. When a track scholarship took him to the University of Illinois, he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics while also learning and mastering the English language.
McSween later journeyed from Chicago to New York City for a position at the New York Life home office, then spent the next 28 years as a top producer at the company.
His own experience and his encounters with others struggling for civil and economic justice drove McSween to develop other business opportunities. He was on the board of directors of black-owned Independence Bank in Chicago, owned 11 McDonald’s franchises, and served on the board of the Black McDonald’s Owners Association. He also mentored Black entrepreneurs and led fundraising efforts for various civil rights organizations. King was so impressed by McSween’s quick mind that he recommended he join the board of directors of the SCLC, eventually becoming its treasurer.
Fighting for a slice
The wealth gap between African Americans and other Americans remains wide, as it was then. McSween was part of a program called Operation Breadbasket, which encouraged African Americans to boycott businesses that didn’t employ Blacks. One slogan was “keep a slice of the bread in the community.” McSween’s business savvy identified him as a leader.
“[Cirilo] has a great capacity to listen to ideas, absorb them, challenge them, modify them and then reach conclusions and recommendations that would work. He used not only his money and his position, but more importantly his mind and his values and his commitments to make justice possible" - civil rights activist Rev. Gary Massoni.
“[Cirilo] has a great capacity to listen to ideas, absorb them, challenge them, modify them and then reach conclusions and recommendations that would work. He used not only his money and his position, but more importantly his mind and his values and his commitments to make justice possible,” said civil rights activist Rev. Gary Massoni in a tribute to McSween. “This is what makes Cirilo great to me.”
To any who knew McSween, he was an image of sophistication. “Throughout all these campaigns our go-to person was Cirilo McSween. Behind the scenes of so many Breadbasket successes, Cirilo was a trusted advisor, tireless worker, fabulous fundraiser, and steady anchor,” Martin L. Deppe wrote in his history of Operation Breadbasket. “He once said that he modeled his life after Dr. King’s, and he was a model of dignity, determination, and fair play in economic leadership circles of Chicago. His self-esteem was evident in the way he walked, the command of his speech, and the elegance of his dress, always wearing a suit with a wide, bright tie, and a straw hat in season.”
That description fits many New York Life agents who understand that they are protecting families and helping them pass along generational wealth. As the first African American agent, McSween became a model. He inspired many who came after him and in 2002, the AAMU commemorated McSween’s dedication to lifting people of color by offering a means to self-determination, establishing the Cirilo McSween Scholarship. The scholarship has awarded $730,000 to qualified winners since its creation.
Gus Bowers, Greater Chicago, joined New York Life in 1968. Bowers, an African American, entered a career with potential for growth that was a direct result of McSween’s efforts. “I didn’t see much of Cirilo then because he was so occupied with the civil rights movement,” Bowers said in a 2018 interview in honor of his 50th anniversary. “But there was a network of Black agents and managers I could call on,” he said. McSween’s efforts were expanding economic opportunities for individual agents and their communities.
King’s economic message
A consummate team player, McSween wanted everyone to win, so it’s not surprising that he was attracted to King and other leaders in the civil rights movement. A key part of King’s work was ensuring that people of color had the same opportunities to earn a living and create a community. The “I have a Dream” speech aligned with the economic vision of McSween and his colleagues.
In the nearly 17-minute speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King addressed economic inequality. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans remained shackled by discrimination. He called the American promise of opportunity a “bad check” when delivered to Blacks. He urged action over despair.
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice,” King said.
It was not for a handout, but rather for access to opportunity. McSween had been demanding access to opportunity. His work with New York Life created opportunity for other people of color and consequently provided protection and financial stability for their clients. No small feat.
At New York Life and in his other endeavors, McSween sought to bring access to opportunity for all. The McSween scholarship is a way of carrying on the legacy and the AAMU itself helps African American agents and managers reach their full potential.
McSween passed away on Nov. 5, 2008, the day after Barack Obama was elected the first African American President of the United States.
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