All Commentary
Friday, January 1, 1999

Elijah McCoy and Berry Gordy: Ingenuity Overcomes

Affirmative action is not a prerequisite for success.

Part of the tragedy of affirmative action is its implied premise that intended beneficiaries can’t succeed in business unless government grants them special privileges. But history shows that when people have the freedom to succeed, remarkable entrepreneurs and innovators emerge. Two examples separated by a century—Elijah McCoy and Berry Gordy—show how black innovators changed American life before the existence of affirmative action.

Railroads were one of the greatest inventions of the nineteenth century. One man who was indispensable in helping the railroads run efficiently and on time was Elijah McCoy. He was born in 1843 in Canada, where his parents had fled from Kentucky to escape slavery. In Canada, the McCoys learned that individual freedom and training in the marketplace were keys to opening opportunities for blacks.

On reaching manhood, Elijah McCoy went to Scotland for training in mechanical engineering. When it came time to apply his industrial skills, the Civil War had ended and blacks were legally free. McCoy came back to the United States and settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he began working for the Michigan Central Railroad.

Determined to Achieve

Despite his training, McCoy was offered the lowly job of locomotive fireman. He accepted it with a determination to show the railroad that he could accomplish more.

He immediately applied his skills to a major problem: the dangerous overheating of locomotives. Trains had to stop regularly so that their engines could be oiled to reduce friction. If trains stopped infrequently, the overheating could damage parts or start fires. If they stopped too often, freight and passengers would be delayed. McCoy invented a lubricating cup that oiled engine parts as the train was moving. He secured a patent for it in 1872 and steadily improved it.

Others tried to imitate McCoy’s invention, but he kept ahead of them with his superior engineering skills. His standard of quality was so high that the cup became known as “the real McCoy,” which many believe to be the origin of the famous phrase.

The invention helped the Michigan Central run safer and quicker across the state. It was also put to use in stationary engines and even in steamship engines. The grateful management of the Michigan Central promoted McCoy and honored him as a teacher and innovator for the railroad.

McCoy showed remarkable creative energy during the next 50 years. He received 51 more patents, mostly for lubricating devices. Not even old age dimmed his creative light. When he was 77, he patented an improved airbrake lubricator; when he was 80, he patented a vehicle wheel tire. He founded the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit in 1920 to make and sell his inventions.

Elijah McCoy was one of many black Americans who after the Civil War improved the American workplace and showed skeptical whites what free, enterprising blacks could accomplish. In the late 1950s, 30 years after his death, another black American from Detroit, Berry Gordy, was using the free market to transform American music.

The Motown Sound

Forty years ago, many blacks enjoyed rhythm and blues music, but it was routinely unprofitable and often performed in shabby venues. Berry Gordy, a songwriter and assembly-line worker, had a vision of taking black-inspired music out of the slums and giving it broad, national appeal as a respectable art form. In 1959, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family and risked it to start Motown Record Corporation, named for the “motor town” of Detroit.

Once in business, Gordy hustled musical talent from the streets of the city and pinched pennies to survive. He set up a used two-track recorder in his small house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard that became Motown headquarters. His father did the plastering and repairs, and his sister did the bookkeeping. His vocal studio was in the hallway, and his echo chamber was the downstairs bathroom. “We had to post a guard outside the door,” Gordy says, “to make sure no one flushed the toilet while we were recording.”

The fact that Gordy started Motown out of his home is more than a quaint historical footnote. Doing that today in Detroit’s residential areas would violate the city’s repressive ban on home-based businesses—a sad comment on how stifling Detroit’s regulations and taxes have become since the 1950s.

Gordy’s success is sometimes ascribed to his knack for writing and producing hit songs. But there was more than that. As actor Sidney Poitier observed, “Berry Gordy . . . set out to make music for all people, whatever their color or place of origin.” In doing so, Gordy made black music—the Motown sound—part of the mainstream popular culture in America.

What an achievement! Gordy had white teens all over America humming the catchy tunes of the Four Tops, the Miracles, and the Temptations. After that, he promoted a flurry of black stars including Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder. Gordy so much wanted their music, and that of other Motown singers, to reach the larger white audience in America that the sign on his headquarters read, “Hitsville, U.S.A.”

The impact of Gordy’s remarkable achievement is worth pondering. At one level, he created more opportunities for blacks everywhere in the music business—production, nightclubs, recording, and marketing. Beyond that, in an era of racial tensions, Gordy’s music bonded blacks and whites. In 1964 and 1965, some whites attacked blacks in Oxford, Mississippi, and Selma, Alabama. But during this time, many white fans everywhere were making number-one hits for Gordy out of the first three songs by the Supremes: “Where Did Our Love Go?,” “Baby Love,” and “Come See About Me.”

The Motown sound became mainstream American music not by law or force, but by choice. It was clever entrepreneurship, not affirmative action, that persuaded whites to integrate black musicians into their record collections. Gordy used well-crafted songs to capture not just first place on Billboard‘s Top 100, but the number two and three slots as well for the whole last month of 1968.

America’s system of private enterprise gave Gordy the chance to air his records on radio stations and have them compete for sales in record stores all over America. But when Gordy tried to expand the Motown sound into England, he found government standing in his way. The government stations, especially the British Broadcasting Company, refused to play Motown records and give Gordy the chance that private enterprise gave him in the United States. “Because we couldn’t get our records on the government stations,” Gordy said, “our earliest airplay had come from Radio Veronica and Radio Caroline, ‘pirate ships’ anchored a few miles off the coasts of England and Holland.”

The Motown music broadcast from those pirate ships captivated British listeners. Soon the demand for Gordy’s records swamped record stores from Liverpool to London and forced the bureaucrats to permit the music to be heard on government stations. When Radio Free Europe and The Voice of America began playing Gordy’s records, his empire penetrated the Iron Curtain and truly became an international force.

Success, Gordy explains to this day, starts with a dream. “That’s what’s wrong with people,” Gordy said when he started Motown. “They give up their dreams too soon. I’m never going to give up mine.” And because he didn’t give up, black Americans have more opportunities today and American music has changed forever.

Throughout much of American history, black entrepreneurs and innovators have been objects of discrimination. But, as the stories of Elijah McCoy and Berry Gordy suggest, the remedy for discrimination in the past is not reverse discrimination in the present, but the freedom to invent, create, and produce in a free market.

  • Burton Folsom, Jr. is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and author (with his wife, Anita) of FDR Goes to WarHe is a member of the FEE Faculty Network