The Next Black Power Movement The boom in African-American entrepreneurship isn't just a business story. It's also a logical extension of the civil rights struggle. Here's why.
By David J. Dent

(FORTUNE Small Business) – The small brick church on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery may seem modest--it has only 250 members--but in fact it is legendary. In a previous life it was the headquarters from which a young Martin Luther King Jr. organized the Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-1950s. And it was from its pulpit that he delivered some of his most stirring speeches. "Money can be the root of all evil," King declared in 1956. "Work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth."

Though the church now bears Dr. King's name, you're likely to hear a very different message coming from Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church today. Current pastor Michael Thurman loudly and openly embraces capitalism in its purest form: entrepreneurship. "Ownership means employing people and creating stronger communities," says Rev. Thurman. "It's something I always stress from the pulpit."

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church demonstrates an important, if unrecognized, truth: Today black entrepreneurship has captured the momentum that once filtered through the civil rights movement a generation ago. The signs may not be as visible as the placards and protests that proliferated during the '60s, but the numbers tell the story. A Marion Kaufman Foundation study found that African-American males between the ages of 25 and 35 are more likely to start businesses than any other men in that age range. Blacks are 50% more likely than whites or Hispanics to experiment with entrepreneurship. A different survey found that African-American companies are started at three times the rate of all businesses. And in a 1998 study published in Fortune, 50% of African-American professionals said that black leaders should spend more of their time concentrating on business; only 31% said they should focus on politics.

"I tell my students, 'I'd rather you be a capitalist pig than a Senator,'" says John Butler, a professor of business at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Entrepreneurship and Self-Help Among African Americans: A Reconsideration of Race and Economics.

Gwen Day Richardson exemplifies the trend. Once an active Democrat--she raised funds for Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign and started a liberal newsletter--she became fed up with what she perceived as Democrats' lack of support for the business community. So she moved across the aisle and became a Republican. In 1990 she changed the editorial focus of her newsletter, which grew into National Minority Politics, a magazine for black conservatives. But she soon found herself just as frustrated with the GOP, as she was paraded around by conservatives eager to prove they were not racist. In 1999 she closed the magazine and left politics; today she runs, an Internet-based bookstore that focuses on African-American merchandise. She expects to pull in $1 million in sales this year. "In politics people always see your color," she says. "In business there's a greater chance they're just looking at cash. The only way to solve racism is to build institutions or businesses and make money. Period."

It isn't the first time this country has seen a surge in black entrepreneurialism. "The history of black Americans has always been self-employment and entrepreneurship," says Butler. "In 1910 black Americans were more likely to be self-employed than any group in America."

That may sound like a feel-good story; it isn't. Post-emancipation black entrepreneurs formed their own businesses as a form of empowerment, to be sure, but also because, in Butler's words, "they tried to get as far away as they could from the white population, and one way to do this was through self-employment."

One could look at the modern entrepreneurial movement and see similarly cynical motives: Be your own boss to avoid a racist one. Indeed, the 1998 Fortune study found that 81% of African-American professionals still felt that workplace discrimination was common. And few would deny that even today African Americans remain severely underrepresented in many boardrooms across the U.S.

That said, the rise of black entrepreneurship clearly grows out of the idealism of the civil rights movement. Without its gains, it is inconceivable that so many African Americans would own businesses--not in antebellum ghettos, as in 1910--but in the heart of mainstream America.

Fred Terrell, founder of New York City venture capital firm Provender Capital, thinks that entrepreneurship isn't just a symbol of the accomplishments of the civil rights movement. It is, he says, a way of continuing to advance that movement. Growing up in Los Angeles in the '60s and '70s, Terrell hoped to become a lawyer and then a Congressman. Things didn't quite work out that way. He spent a few years working for the city of Los Angeles, but soon left government for a Yale MBA after he fell under the mid-1980s lure of the private sector.

Today Terrell, 46, says he feels as if he's contributing more to the civil rights movement as a private businessman running Provender, which now has $145 million under management, than he ever did as a member of the Los Angeles government. After all, the more African American--run venture capital firms there are, the less likely it is that other black entrepreneurs will have to overcome the traditional racist hurdles when they apply for financing. Or, put another way, the more likely it becomes that businesspeople will be judged not by the color of their skin but on the content of their business plans. Terrell's tactics may not be as splashy as a 1960s-style protest march, but they are still making a significant impact. And who knows what the future will bring? "We are babes in this industry," Terrell says. "But we are changing the world in our own small way."

David J. Dent, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, is author of In Search of Black America: Discovering the African American Dream, which was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2000.