Tom Jones ’69 MRP ’72, a prominent figure in the 1969 Willard Straight Takeover, returned to Willard Straight Hall on Wednesday night to share lessons learned during the 50 years since the takeover and to reflect on the current state of race relations in America.
Jones is the founder and partner of TWJ Capital and former chairman and chief executive officer of Global Investment Management at Citigroup.
The event, titled “From Willard Straight to Wall Street and Back: An Evening with Tom Jones ’69” was sponsored by the Sigma Phi fraternity as part of the Lawrence ’68 and Judith Tanenbaum Distinguished Speakers Fellowship.
At the time of the Willard Straight Takeover, Tom Jones was a nineteen-year-old senior at Cornell.
As a student-government activist who had been freshman class president, Jones took part in the takeover “in solidarity” with his peers, but eventually became a leader in the two-day standoff that ended in a peaceful agreement between the students and the University.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in government, Jones continued his studies at Cornell while working to make the African Studies Center a reality.
At the event on Thursday, Jones was introduced by Prof. Olufemi Taiwo, Director of Undergraduate Studies of Africana Studies and Research Center, who said it was “our honor — my department, staff and faculty, and mine … to have the opportunity” to introduce him.
Jones began his address with a reading of a passage from his recently-published memoir, “From Willard Straight to Wall Street,” copies of which were distributed to the first 100 audience members upon arrival.
The excerpt painted a picture of the takeover for Jones and his fellow activists.
“This was not what I had expected from college, not at all … Guns, knives, a two-day standoff with the university authorities. I hadn’t really slept in forty hours, and now it was morning again,” Jones said. “I thought I might be killed if we fought, but I wasn’t afraid.”
In the two years leading up to the takeover, Jones and his peers witnessed a series of violent acts: the shooting of thirty unarmed black students in South Carolina, the aftermath of race riots across the country and the assassination of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
Although the takeover ended peacefully, Jones extended an apology to the individuals harmed by the event, including black students who were traumatized by the experience and President Perkins who resigned shortly after the takeover.
“I am sorry at the individual level for the people who were hurt,” said Jones.
Jones recognized the effort President Perkins made in increasing black student enrollment at Cornell and said that Perkins became a “scapegoat” for the incident.
Jones said that while it was important to focus on how far we’ve come, “the legacy of hundreds of years of slavery … cannot be reversed in just 50 years.”
Jones went on to share three life lessons he has learned in the 50 years since the Takeover, each in the context of different stages in his life.
The first lesson came in graduate school, where he learned the difference between working hard and working at full capacity.
“I had never exceeded the 95 percent level of effort, probably because … most of us are socialized to think that 95 percent is an A and an A is the best grade.”
“The five points separating 95 and 100 don’t seem like much and it isn’t on any given day or any given exam or work assignment, but it’s a lot when those five points are compounded every day, week after week, month after month, over the span of five years.”
He urged students to give 100 percent, comparing the self-actualization of achieving his highest potential with a “spiritual gift.”
Jones learned his second life lesson when he was fired by Citigroup and subsequently investigated for fraud by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission at the height of his career.
From that experience Jones learned that “if it seems the world is against you, you’re going to have to look inside yourself for spiritual strength.” He encouraged the audience to prepare for times of trial in life.
Jones’ final lesson came from the “animosity” he experienced from his black peers at Cornell who, according to Jones, criticized him for “mov[ing] easily between black and white social circles” and later on for establishing the James A. Perkins Prize for Interracial & Intercultural Peace & Harmony in honor of the late president.
He referenced a Cornell Sun op-ed written about the protest of the Perkins Prize in 1999.
The piece pointed out that Jones was dubbed “Uncle Tom Jones” by some black students at the University and was called a “sellout” by Ed Whitfield, another prominent Willard Straight Takeover leader. It also suggested a “Jones-Whitefield debate” between the two leaders.
In response to this Jones said, “I have no criticisms of the way that Ed Whitfield has lived his life and I hope that his community organizing and efforts have been successful.”
“I respect the life choices that Ed Whitfield has made and I hope that he and those who emulate him will someday learn to also respect the life choices that I and others like me have made,” Jones continued.
As his final life lesson, Jones urged audience members to commit to high moral standards and “rise above racial, cultural, ethnic and religious animosities.”