Congressman John Robert Lewis Leadership Conference participants challenged, inspired by speakers

Birmingham businessman, author and artist Larry D. Thornton delivers the keynote address during the conference's opening session on Friday evening.

Birmingham businessman, author and artist Larry D. Thornton delivers the keynote address during the conference's opening session on Friday evening.

Participants in the Congressman John Robert Lewis Leadership Conference this weekend heard inspiring messages that both encouraged and challenged them to make a difference in their own communities.

The conference, which is in its 20th year, was renamed in memory of the late Congressman and Civil Rights icon following his death in 2020. Presented by the University and the City of Troy, the conference brings individuals together to promote dialogue that fosters multicultural collaboration to strengthen relationships and empower diverse leaders with the tools to better serve their organizations and communities.

Friday night’s opening session featured a keynote address by Larry D. Thornton, a businessman, author and artist from Birmingham, who challenged those in attendance to strive to be the diamonds they are capable of being.

“The truth is for most of us, we are just an old lump of coal,” he said. “I think it should start there with gratitude and humility. One day you can be a diamond, but only if you can withstand the pressure, the cutting, the grinding that it takes to become a diamond. You have the capacity to do it. When you’re on your way to becoming that diamond, keep in mind where you came from. You are going to run into other people who you can encourage.”

Thornton said all people have at least four possessions that carry with them extreme power and wealth if well nurtured.

“We all have at least four possessions – talents, abilities, time and an underutilized mind,” Thornton said. “That is an enormous amount of wealth if you invest them well. I would argue that some of the most challenging work you will ever do is the work that you will do on yourselves. Take the heat, bear the storms and know that the impending blue skies will follow. It takes faith to be able to do that.”

Thornton recalled his own experiences growing up in Montgomery and a high school teacher that made a difference in his life, setting him on the path to college and a successful professional career. It was her actions as much as her words that had a tremendous impact on him as a young man.

“Never underestimate the power of who we are and the significance it can have on somebody else,” he reminded the group. “It can make all the difference in the world even if we don’t see or know it. Some of the most powerful, some of the most pointed, some of the most poignant messages you will ever deliver or receive will occur without the employment of a single word. Live it, be it, you don’t have to open your mouth.”

Thornton encouraged participants to become intentional about knowing someone different than themselves.

“We should make it our business to get to know someone that doesn’t look like you. Somebody that doesn’t think the way you think. Somebody that doesn’t believe what you believe,” he said. “When we close people out it is very difficult to not be simultaneously closing ourselves in. Let’s get to know people so that we can have what I would call a much better and more inclusive society.”

In closing, Thornton urged participants to accept the challenge of the late Congressman Lewis, his family members and the other leaders who have dedicated themselves to serving others for the greater good.

“To all of us, the future coalition builders, I urge us, as we leave this room tonight, to accept the challenge of the Lewis family and Congressman Lewis himself. Let’s be bold in our actions. Let’s not be found taking some old passive and apathetic, lukewarm, mediocre, lackadaisical, ordinary and commonplace approach to winning, for finding our place,” he said. “We have to be excited about this stuff, enthusiastic, dynamic in helping all of us to build a better, a greater, a more equitable and inclusive community. If we do that, winning, for all of us, is inevitable.”  

Thornton is the president and founder of Thornton Enterprises in Birmingham. Created in 1992, Thornton Enterprises is a McDonald’s restaurant franchisee that owns and operates seven restaurants in the Birmingham metropolitan statistical area, generating over $17 million in annual revenue and employing over 200 individuals. Prior to his current role, Thornton served as advertising manager for Coca-Cola Bottling Company United until 2003 and also previously served as an art teacher at Vestavia Hills High School.

Thornton is a member of the boards of directors of the Birmingham Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Coca-Cola Bottling Company United Inc., Synovus Bank of Birmingham, the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind, and the Freshwater Land Trust. He is the former president of the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham and former board chair of the United Negro College Fund, Alabama State University, the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club, and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. He is also a member of the Society of International Business Fellows.

In 2019, Thornton released his first book, “Why Not Win? A Reflection on His 50-Year Journey from the Segregated South to America’s Boardrooms – and What It Teaches Us All.”

The conference continued on Saturday with plenary session led by Dr. Elizabeth Dawson, a local pediatrician; Angelene Kendall-Henderson, a TROY alumna who is a licensed therapist in Alabama, currently working with incarcerated men in state facilities; and, Dr. Frankie Bell, a TROY alumna and education administrator who is the author of “Choose to Win,” “Leaders-Shift,” and “The B.E.L.L. Factor.”

The conference concluded with the Bishop S.D. James Luncheon Session, featuring a keynote address by the Rev. Darryl Caldwell, Pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Banks.