On March 11, Delta Air Lines dedicated a building at its Atlanta headquarters to Andrew Young, the civil rights leader and former mayor. At the ceremony, Mr. Young spoke of the restrictive voting rights bill that Republicans were rushing through the Georgia state legislature. Then, after the speeches, Mr. Young’s daughter, Andrea, a prominent activist herself, cornered Delta’s chief executive, Ed Bastian.
“I told him how important it was to oppose this law,” she said.
For Mr. Bastian, it was an early warning that the issue of voting rights might soon ensnare Delta in another national dispute. Over the past five years, corporations have taken political stands like never before, often in response to the extreme policies of former President Donald J. Trump.
After Mr. Trump’s equivocating response to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, Ken Frazier, the Black chief executive of Merck, resigned from a presidential advisory group, prompting dozens of other top executives to distance themselves from the president. Last year, after the killing of George Floyd, hundreds of companies expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
But for corporations, the dispute over voting rights is different. An issue that both political parties see as a priority is not easily addressed with statements of solidarity and donations. Taking a stand on voting rights legislation thrusts companies into partisan politics and pits them against Republicans who have proven willing to raise taxes and enact onerous regulations on companies that cross them politically.
It is a head-spinning new landscape for big companies, which are trying to appease Democrats focused on social justice, as well as populist Republicans who are suddenly unafraid to break ties with business. Companies like Delta are caught in the middle, and face steep political consequences no matter what they do.
“It was very hard under President Trump, and the business community was hoping that with a change of administration it might get a bit easier,” said Rich Lesser, the chief executive of Boston Consulting Group. “But business leaders are still facing challenges on how to navigate a range of issues, and the elections issue is among the most sensitive.”
At first, Delta, Georgia’s largest employer, tried to stay out of the fight on voting rights. But after the Georgia law was passed, a group of powerful Black executives publicly called on big companies to oppose the voting legislation. Hours later, Delta and Coca-Cola abruptly reversed course and disavowed the Georgia law. On Friday, Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star game from Atlanta in protest, and more than 100 other companies spoke out in defense of voting rights.
The groundswell of support suggests that the Black executives’ clarion call will have an impact in the months ahead, as Republican lawmakers in more than 40 states advance restrictive voting laws. But already, the backlash has been swift, with Mr. Trump calling for boycotts of companies opposing such laws, and Georgia lawmakers voting for new taxes on Delta.
“If people feel like it’s a been a week of discomfort and uncertainty, it should be, and it needs to be,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who has been pushing companies to get involved. “Corporations have to figure out who they are in this moment.”
Throughout it all, Delta was at the center of the storm. Delta has long played an outsize role in Georgia’s business and political life, and since Mr. Bastian became chief executive in 2016, he has engaged with some thorny political and social issues.
Delta supports L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and in 2018, after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Mr. Bastian ended a partnership with the National Rifle Association. In response, Republican lawmakers in Georgia voted to eliminate a tax break for Delta, costing the company $50 million.
Yet as 2021 began and Mr. Bastian focused on his company’s recovery from the pandemic, an even more partisan issue loomed.
In February, civil rights activists began reaching out to Delta, flagging what they saw as problematic provisions in early drafts of the bill, including a ban on Sunday voting, and asking the company to use its clout and lobbying muscle to sway the debate.
Delta’s government affairs team shared some of those concerns, but decided to work behind the scenes, rather than go public. It was a calculated choice intended to avoid upsetting Republican lawmakers.
In early March, Delta lobbyists pushed David Ralston, the Republican head of the Georgia house, and aides to Gov. Brian Kemp to remove some far-reaching provisions in the bill.
But even as pressure mounted on Delta to publicly oppose the legislation, Mr. Bastian’s advisers were telling him to remain silent. Instead, the company issued a statement supporting voting rights generally. Other major Atlanta companies, including Coca-Cola, UPS and Home Depot, followed the same script, refraining from criticizing the bill.
That passive approach infuriated activists. In mid-March, protesters staged a “die in” at Coca-Cola’s museum. Bishop Reginald Jackson, an influential Atlanta pastor, took to the streets with a bullhorn and called for a boycott of Coca-Cola. Days later, activists massed at the Delta terminal at the Atlanta airport and called on Mr. Bastian to use his clout to “kill the bill.” Still, Mr. Bastian declined to say anything publicly.
Two weeks to the day after Delta dedicated its building to Mr. Young, the law was passed. Some of the most restrictive provisions had been removed, but the law limits ballot access and makes it a crime to give water to people waiting in line to vote.
The fight in Georgia appeared to be over. Days after the law was passed though, a group of powerful Black executives frustrated by the results sprang into action. Soon, Atlanta companies were drawn back into the fight, and the controversy had spread to other corporations around the country.
Last Sunday, William M. Lewis, Jr., the chairman of investment banking at Lazard, emailed a handful of Georgia academics and executives, asking what he could do. The group had a simple answer: get other Black business leaders to sound the alarm.
Minutes after receiving that reply, Mr. Lewis emailed four other senior Black executives, including Ken Chenault, the former chief executive of American Express, and Mr. Frazier, the chief executive of Merck. Ten minutes later, the men were on a video call and resolved to write a public letter, according to two people familiar with the matter.
That Sunday afternoon, Mr. Lewis emailed a list of 150 prominent Black executives that he curates. Before long, the men had collected more than 70 signatures, including Robert F. Smith, chief executive of Vista Equity Partners; Raymond McGuire, a former Citigroup executive who is running for mayor of New York; Ursula Burns, former chief executive of Xerox; and Richard Parsons, former chairman of Citigroup and chief executive of Time Warner.
Mr. Chenault said some executives who were asked to sign declined. “Some were concerned about the attention that it would draw to them and their company,” he said.
Before the group went public, Mr. Chenault reached out to Mr. Bastian of Delta, according to three people familiar with the matter. The men have known each other for decades, and on Tuesday night they spoke at length about the Georgia law, and what role Delta could play in the debate.
The next morning, the letter appeared as a full-page ad in The New York Times, and Mr. Chenault and Mr. Frazier spoke with the media. “There is no middle ground here,” Mr. Chenault told The Times. “You either are for more people voting, or you want to suppress the vote.”
“This was unprecedented,” Mr. Lewis said. “The African-American business community has never coalesced around a nonbusiness issue and issued a call to action to the broader corporate community.”
Mr. Bastian had been unable to sleep on Tuesday night after his call with Mr. Chenault, according to two people familiar with the matter. He had also been receiving a stream of emails about the law from Black Delta employees, who make up 21 percent of the company’s work force. Eventually, Mr. Bastian came to the conclusion that it was deeply problematic, the two people said.
Late that night, he roughed out a fiery memo, which he sent to Delta employees on Wednesday morning. In it, he abandoned all pretense of neutrality and stated his “crystal clear” opposition to the law. “The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie,” he wrote.
Hours later, James Quincey, the chief executive of Coca-Cola, issued a more reserved statement that parroted some of Mr. Bastian’s language, also using the words “crystal clear.” Mr. Quincey, a British national who has managed the crisis from his home in London, then participated in a private 45-minute video meeting with Mr. Jackson and Ms. Ifill and tried to express his solidarity with their cause.
“A lot of C.E.O.s want to do the right thing, they’re just scared of the blowback and they need cover,” said Darren Walker, who signed the letter and is the president of the Ford Foundation and on the boards of three public companies. “What the letter did was provide cover.”
But for Delta and Coca-Cola, the repercussions were intense and immediate. Governor Kemp accused Mr. Bastian of spreading “the same false attacks being repeated by partisan activists.” And Republicans in the Georgia house voted to strip Delta of a tax break, just as they did three years ago. “You don’t feed a dog that bites your hand,” said Mr. Ralston, the house speaker.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida posted a video in which he called Delta and Coca-Cola “woke corporate hypocrites” and Mr. Trump joined the calls for a boycott of companies speaking out against the voting laws.
Companies that had taken a more cautious approach weren’t targeted the same way. UPS and Home Depot, big Atlanta employers, also faced early calls to oppose the Georgia law, but instead made unspecific commitments to voting rights.
In the wake of the Black executives’ letter and the statements by Delta and Coca-Cola, more companies have come forward. On Thursday, American Airlines and Dell, both based in Texas, declared their opposition to proposed voting legislation in that state. And on Friday, more than 170 companies signed a statement calling on elected officials around the country to refrain from enacting legislation that makes it harder for people to vote.
It was messy, but to many activists, it was progress. “Companies don’t exist in a vacuum,” said Stacey Abrams, who has worked for years to get out the Black vote in Georgia. “It’s going to take a national response by corporations to stop what happened in Georgia from happening in other states.”