Reatha Clark King: From Cotton Fields to the Boardroom

Reatha Clark King
Courtesy: Reatha Clark King

Reatha Clark King’s roots trace to a rural community, where many encouraged her to become a leader. Reatha acknowledges, “I didn’t get here on my own. I am standing on the shoulders of the giants who helped me get launched.”

Reatha grew up in Georgia in the 1940s, the daughter of farm laborers. Her father left the family when she was young, so her mother worked as a maid to support her three children. Her family was so poor that she often had to leave school to work in the cotton fields for $3 per day so that her mother could pay the bills. “Those were bitter moments in my experience, because White children didn’t have to leave school,” she recalls. “That contrast was so clear and so wrong.”

Her church was a haven amid constant poverty and discrimination. “I have fond memories of going to church every Sunday morning. I can still close my eyes and see my grandmother praying.” The older women of the church identified Reatha’s special abilities, noticing her intellectual potential, initiative, work ethic, and dependability. “The sisters, teachers, and people in the community kept an eye on me, and encouraged me to overcome unjust barriers against Black people.”

Reatha credited her grade school teacher and the school librarian with influencing her development. They encouraged her to go to Clark University in Atlanta, GA, where she won a scholarship and worked in the library for 35 cents an hour to pay for room and board. While studying at Clark, the chair of the chemistry department mentored Reatha, stimulating her interest in becoming a research chemist.

She applied to the University of Chicago’s doctoral program, a bold step for a poor woman from Georgia. After earning her PhD in physical chemistry, she worked at the National Bureau of Standards and taught at York College in New York. Even there, things were not easy. “One Black faculty member called me an Uncle Tom for trying to resolve issues,” she recalls. “That was one of the most hurtful moments of my life.”

She got her first opportunity to lead when she became president of Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis, MN. Even then she did not see herself as a leader.

Others thought of me as a leader, but I saw myself as someone doing what needed to be done. My reasons for leading were not centered on my needs but on the needs of women, my people, and my community. I saw compelling challenges to be met. If no one else is willing or capable of leading, then it is my obligation to step up to the challenge. My inspiration comes from the sisters and teachers who had such great influence on my life.

While at Metro State, Reatha was recruited by the CEO of General Mills to be president of its foundation. Using this platform, she pioneered programs to help young people of color. Since retiring from General Mills, she has devoted her energies to corporate boards. Her reputation grew as she was elected a director of ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo, and other companies. An advocate for strong corporate governance, Reatha chaired the National Association of Corporate Directors, which named her director of the year in 2004. “I enjoy serving on corporate boards because diversity should be at that table,” she says.

Throughout her life, Reatha has used the inspiration of her life story to stay on course to her True North. She reaches out and helps others as she quietly walks past barriers of racial and gender discrimination, without ever succumbing to anger. As comfortable in the boardrooms of the world’s largest corporations as she is in creating opportunities for the poor, Reatha still worries whether she is doing enough. “I’m leading toward a cause: to get more opportunities for people. It is in my blood to remove unjust barriers and help people appreciate themselves and be who they are.”