Counting numbers has been a big part of Michael McMillan’s life for a long time. As a teenager, he worked in the accounting department of his uncle’s beverage distributing business. At Saint Louis University, he went to business school and planned to major in finance. And although he ended up in African-American studies and politics, he was still adding up numbers: McMillan piled up a large sum of leadership roles after he became the youngest person ever elected to the St. Louis Board of Alderman; and seven years ago, his clout multiplied tenfold when he was voted in as the license collector for the City of St. Louis.
McMillan has served on the boards of dozens of organizations, charitable causes and civil rights groups, accumulating scores of awards and honors along the way. His City Hall office was responsible for bringing in some $60 million in business taxes and fees—all amounting to some very big numbers, indeed. But from now on, he’ll start counting in a different way: adding up the number of people’s lives he wants to help change for the better.
McMillan was just named the new president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, one of the most successful Urban League offices in the nation. He took the place of James Buford, who retired after 28 years and is considered one of the region’s most profound African-American leaders. McMillan will be trying to follow a person who built a reputation as a unifier and a calming presence. “No one can fill Jim Buford’s shoes—my job is to try and sustain the legacy he created and build upon that work,” he says.
McMillan became involved with the Urban League early on, about the same time he got his driver’s license. He attended St. Louis University High School, and then graduated in 1989 from Bishop DuBourg. At 41, he’s still a young man, but has been around long enough to realize that the goals ahead won’t come easy. “The first thing I’m going to do is go on a listening tour and meet with our 65 board members, our 200 employees, the United Way and our corporate partners.”
When I worked as a news reporter, I’ve always thought of the Urban League as having a unique role. I knew that when those on the far left and far right were at odds, or if racial tension was brewing, I could always count on the League to step forward and try to forge some middle ground in an attempt to bring everyone closer together.
McMillan understands that perception, as well. “The Urban League is uniquely positioned to provide a voice of reason because it has the most diverse constituency. It functions as a civil rights organization and advocate for African-Americans and the poor and oppressed, while simultaneously creating very strong relationships with the business and corporate community and other not-for- profit organizations so that everyone’s voice is at the table.” He adds the biggest mission for the Urban League today is jobs. “We need to make sure the League helps those in the inner-city and throughout the area who have a difficult time trying to get into the work force. We need to help people who are desirous to work and get them job-training and educational skills, and help them have a more meaningful life and successful careers.”
McMillan may also be in a unique position to blend in with corporate CEOs, both literally and physically. Until you meet him, you probably wouldn’t be able to immediately recognize his racial makeup. “I’m African-American, but very light-complexioned. We can trace our family back to the South; and in my family, we even have some of the slave papers our ancestors had.”
McMillan laughs when he talks about how some people are surprised when they realize he is indeed, African-American. “That happens to me on a regular basis. Being a native of St. Louis and having gone to school here my whole life, the older I get, the less the confusion is,” he says. “So now, you know—that makes at least one more person who is less confused, and you can answer that unequivocally!”
McMillan’s race, and the history of African-Americans, is always something that provides perspective—a perspective that many of us can never fully understand. “It’s difficult for a race of people in 150 years to go from being a piece of property to being fully equalized in terms of all aspects of life in society,” he tells me in a much more somber tone. “We have obviously made tremendous strides, and the Urban League is trying to help finish the job.”
The number crunching begins again, like the 78,000 people the St. Louis Urban League helped just last year alone. That’s a very big number, indeed, and Michael McMillan is still counting.