My mother always taught me about the importance of history and how critical it was to take steps to make your dreams come true. It may surprise you to learn that one of the things that inspired me to pursue my dreams was actually a roll of toilet paper!
Why is this roll of toilet paper so important?
It all started on February 21, 1961. On that day, students from Morris College—a small Historically Black College in Sumter, SC—should have been attending classes, studying, and enjoying college life. But these students had a higher calling: Their purpose was to change the world. They were actively involved in the civil rights movement and wanted to ensure equal rights for all Americans.
My mother, Tillie Bing Bryant, was one of those students. That afternoon, she participated in a lunch counter sit-in at a Kress Five and Dime Department Store in Sumter.
At that time in the South, black people were not allowed to sit at the same lunch counters, drink from the same water fountains, or use the same restrooms as white people. So this was a brave and courageous act on her part.
My mom has a very light complexion, so she was able to sit at the counter and order lunch without being detected as a black person. She ordered a burger and a soda. When the food arrived, she signaled for the black male students waiting outside to enter and quickly pushed the food down to them to eat.
As you can imagine, chaos ensued.
Sheriff’s officers were called to arrest the students, who were dragged out of the store by their collars. They were threatened with police dogs and water hoses before being thrown into police cars and sent to jail.
My mother was arrested several times during the Civil Rights movement. During this particular jail stay, she wrote her story on a roll of prison toilet paper, describing her fight for equality and freedom and why it was important to her. The passage on that roll that means the most to me is when she talks about her mother telling her not to “get in jail.”
In response, she writes: “Mommy, I don’t mind being in jail, as long as I know one day, when I have children of my own, they will have privilege and can do the things we are fighting so hard for today.”
This story is a constant reminder to me that no matter what it is that drives us, that inspires us, we have to take action—in order to make it real.
I see that spirit in what we do at Johnson & Johnson every day, and most recently in the efforts of our African American Leadership Council’s efforts to celebrate Black History Month this February at many of our U.S. campuses.
The Executive Sponsor of AALC,, Vice Chairman of the Executive Committee of Johnson & Johnson, recently reflected on the importance of taking action at a Black History Month event in Jacksonville, Fla. He shared how he is continually inspired by the leadership journeys of our African American employees, saying, “The common thread through these stories is that, in every case, long-term impact and change was driven by passionate people who took action.”
At Johnson & Johnson, we encourage our employees to be engaged and involved members of their communities. In our efforts to take care of the world, one person at a time—to, in effect, change the world—it’s not just our aspirations and inspirations that set us apart. It’s what we do to make them come true.