Civil rights heroes of Silicon Valley

Roy Clay in CIO Magazine

One can witness the history of black economic empowerment through the story of Roy Clay Sr.   As we observe the 2010 theme of Black History Month, it is important to relate that history to current challenges.

As he describes in the new documentary, Freedom Riders of the Cutting Edge, Clay and other pioneers faced no less daunting challenges to their careers than demonstrators facing police dogs.

Thanks to their perseverence, more than 600,000 African-Americans work in information technology, according to Silicon Ceiling 9: Equal Opportunity and High Technology.

The road to becoming a member of the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame started in an all-black community called Kinloch, outside of St. Louis.  He was able to learn about work, sweeping in a black-owned billiards parlor.

Fate might have made him one of the first black baseball players in the major leagues, but instead he chose to get a degree in mathematics from St. Louis University.

His resume got him an interview with an aircraft maker.   The documentary begins with Clay’s reminiscence of the reaction when he showed up.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Clay, we have no jobs for Negroes.”  Five years later, in 1956, the company hired him to program its first computer.

Within ten years, he was manager of computer research and development for Hewlett Packard.

The interviews with Clay and the other pioneers featured in Freedom Riders demonstrate the importance of thorough preparation, a quest for excellence and dogged determination to overcome barriers crafted through intolerance.

He could scarcely have seen five decades later, to a day when African-Americans routinely fill top executive roles in the most demanding cutting edge industries, and even the White House, but he took the faith of his predecessors forward.

Still today, as founder of Rod-L Electronics, Clay continues to open doors for more African-Americans as employees and entrepreneurs.

While observing Black History Month, take a broader view of the civil rights movement by recognizing the many stalwarts who opened doors to high-paying careers and growth opportunities in practically every profession.

Catapulting to the Future: 50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology is an exhibition which presents the meteoric rise of blacks in technology.  We open the exhibition on Saturday, Feb. 13 with a Conversation with Roy Clay followed by a screening of Freedom Riders of the Cutting Edge in Fremont, CA at 11 a.m.