Merck CEO Frazier joins army of Black execs speaking out on restrictive voting-rights laws

Merck CEO
Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier teamed up with former American Express executive Kenneth Chenault to protest a voting-rights law passed last week in Georgia. (PhRMA)

Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier may be on his way out the drugmaker's door, but his impending retirement isn’t dampening his desire to speak out against injustice—and to urge other top executives to do the same.

Frazier is among a large group of African American executives protesting a voting-rights law passed last week in Georgia. The legislation restricts provisional ballots and ballot drop boxes, bans representatives of political groups from giving food and water to voters waiting in lines, and introduces other limitations that critics say are aimed at making it harder for minorities to vote.

After the law in Georgia passed last Thursday, Frazier teamed up with former American Express executive Kenneth Chenault to take action, Merck’s CEO told the New York Times. They reached out to other Black executives to formulate a response.

The result: a letter signed by 72 Black executives and published as a full-page ad partially backed by the Black Economic Alliance, running today in the Times. The letter urges corporations to use money, lobbyists and other resources to oppose laws that restrict voting rights for Black people. Co-signers include former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and Citigroup ex-chair Richard Parsons.

"As Black business leaders, we cannot sit silently in the face of this gathering threat to our nation's democratic values and allow the fundamental right of Americans, to cast their votes for whomever they choose, to be trampled upon yet again," the letter reads.

Frazier told the Times that African American business executives "don’t have the luxury of being bystanders to injustice" and "sitting on the sidelines when these kinds of injustices are happening all around us.”

Merck posted a statement from Frazier on Twitter adding "We all have an obligation to stand up to racism and other forms of discrimination whenever we see them."

RELATED: Biopharma CEOs call for action on systemic racism—across America and in their own ranks

Frazier has never shied away from entering the political fray. That became clear back in 2017, when he bailed from then-President Donald Trump’s manufacturing council after Trump failed to speak out against white supremacists who participated in protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy,” he said in a statement at the time. He later told the New York Bar Association that he believed if he remained on the manufacturing council it would be “a tacit approval” of Trump’s actions. “And when you run a company like Merck, you always have to think about your institutional responsibility,” he said.

Last year, Frazier led a biopharma industry effort to protest systemic racism following the deaths of George Floyd and other victims of police violence. He said during an interview on CNBC that the police were “clearly inhumane” and that Floyd had been a victim of the “opportunity gap” that affects many African Americans.

Several biopharma executives followed Frazier’s lead in promoting equal justice and opportunity for minorities, including Amgen CEO Robert Bradway and Vertex CEO Reshma Kewalramani.

RELATED: Ken Frazier to retire as Merck CEO after 10-year run, handing the baton to CFO Robert Davis

Frazier will retire as CEO of Merck June 30 and hand off the post to CFO Robert Davis. It will mark the end of a 10-year run, during which Frazier deftly steered Merck through its post-Vioxx turnaround. Among his triumphs was the launch of immuno-oncology blockbuster Keytruda.

To what extent Merck will continue to take a stand against racial injustice under Davis remains to be seen, but the CEO-to-be has made it clear he understands the impact Frazier has had on urging corporate America to take part in the public discourse.

During Merck’s fourth-quarter earnings call, Davis said it would be hard to fill Frazier’s shoes, “both within Merck but also including his many principled and valuable contributions to important issues facing society today.”