Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Advocate Speaks: Over the Past Several Years, UNCF President and CEO Michael Lomax Has Continued to Propel the Philanthropic Organization to New Heights

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Advocate Speaks: Over the Past Several Years, UNCF President and CEO Michael Lomax Has Continued to Propel the Philanthropic Organization to New Heights

Article excerpt


Growing up in the burgeoning metropolis of Los Angeles in the 1960s, there was little doubt that Dr. Michael Lucius Lomax would go on to college. His father, Lucius W. Lomax Jr., was a well-known attorney and businessman. His mother, Almena Davis Lomax, was a pioneering journalist who would go on to earn national accolades for her groundbreaking coverage of the civil rights movement.

"The world that I grew up in was Black intellectuals and the Black professional class," says Lomax in a recent interview with Diverse.

From 1943 to 1960, the Lomax family owned the Los Angeles Tribune, a prominent Black weekly newspaper that profiled Black entertainers and civil rights leaders. Lomax recalls sharing ice cream and cake with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the family home in 1957, as his mother interviewed the iconic leader about his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"We grew up in the Black middle class. Of course I was going to go to college. Everyone went to college," says Lomax, who enrolled at King's alma mater, Morehouse College, in Atlanta, with a scholarship courtesy of the Charles E. Merrill Early Admissions Program. "But the question was, would I go to a Black college, at a time when Black people from California did not go back South to go to a Black college?"

Although his five siblings had all opted to attend predominantly White institutions, Lomax's time as a student at More-house, during the tumultuous days of legalized segregation, undoubtedly set the trajectory for what would become his lifelong passion: advocating for HBCUs--first as a college professor, then as a university president and now as the head of the United Negro College Fund.

"I had a great educational experience," Lomax says of his time at Morehouse when the legendary Dr. Benjamin E. Mays served as its president. "I joke with my siblings that I got the best education of all."

Lomax had initially considered following in his mother's footSteps and becoming a journalist, but decided instead to earn a master's degree in English from Columbia University. He delayed his plans to enroll in a doctoral program when he learned that he could have an occupational deferment from serving in the Vietnam War if he taught at a Black college.

So, in 1969, he headed back to Morehouse, where he taught English until the war ended, and then enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Emory University where he studied American and African-American literature and wrote his dissertation on poet Countee Cullen and the Harlem Renaissance.

After Lomax graduated, he accepted a teaching post at Spelman College and began work as a speechwriter for Atlanta mayoral candidate Maynard Jackson, who would go on to win the election and become Atlanta's first Black mayor. Lomax worked as director of research and international affairs during Jackson's administration.

All the while, Lomax continued teaching English composition and African-American literature at Spelman and Morehouse colleges, thinking about how he could have a larger impact in the public policy arena.

"I was learning to do other things than just teach in the classroom," says Lomax, who dabbled in politics, holding a number of positions that included serving on the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. After two runs for mayor, including one against his former boss Jackson, he lost the mayor's race "convincingly" in 1993 to Bill Campbell. From there, he decided to return full time to higher education "with skills that were very different from what I had as a classroom teacher."

The collegiate route

Lomax set his sights on the college presidency and, in 1997, was selected as the fifth president of Dillard University in New Orleans, serving in that position until 2004. It was then he was tapped to replace the late Rev. William H. Gray III, the former Pennsylvania congressman who retired as UNCF's president and CEO. …

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