joseph anderson turned his experience leading soldiers in war into a career managing auto workers in factories. anderson, one of four black americans to graduate from west point in 1965, commanded infantry troops in vietnam during two tours with the 1st cavalry division. his unit was featured in the 1967 oscar-winning documentary the anderson platoon. he received two silver stars, five bronze stars, three army commendation medals, and 11 air medals over the course of his military career.
after 13 years of service, anderson joined general motors's pontiac motor division to—as he puts it—lead troops carrying wrenches rather than rifles. one of the first black plant managers at gm, anderson ultimately rose to head the company's body hardware business, which had 7000 employees and $1 billion in revenue.
at age 78, he is the ceo of tag holdings, a company he started in the '90s to acquire businesses in the automotive, heavy equipment, aerospace, and defense industries. anderson recently spoke with us about his experience in the military, in the auto industry, and as a black man in america. the interview is part of a hearst project called lift every voice, which records the wisdom and life experiences of black americans ages 75 and older by connecting them with a new generation of black journalists.
de'aundre barnes: you were accepted into one of the most prestigious military academies in the country. when you saw that acceptance letter to west point, how were you feeling?
joseph anderson: well, i'd like to correct you. it's the most prestigious military academy in the united states, much more than the naval academy and air force. i just want to make that clear on the record, de'aundre.
sorry about that.
i thought i was going to go to the university of kansas in engineering. and i participated in an american legion program called boys state, and while i went to boys state i got selected for boys nation. and when i came back from boys nation in washington, d.c., west point sent me a postcard saying, congratulations on this honor, and you're the kind of young man that we'd like to have come to west point. they sent all 100 of us, two from each state at boys nation. they sent me the requirements for application, and i did that. the senator from kansas selected a principal person and then a first alternate, and i was a second alternate. and somehow the principal and first alternate didn't make it, so when i got a call from the academy in june saying, "if you're still interested, show up in july," i was very excited. part of it is, it was going to be a great educational experience, and, secondly, it was not going to be a financial burden on my family. but to be quite honest, i did not have any background or understanding or appreciation for the military, as is often the case with young men coming into the academies. but you learn very quickly, and it worked for me.
have you always known that you wanted to serve your country, or did you have another plan for your life?
i had another plan. as i said, i thought i'd go into engineering. now, did i know any negro—at that time negro—or african american or black engineers? no, i didn't. but with the good grades that i had, i thought that would be the appropriate experience for me and so i anticipated doing that.
you're a highly decorated man. what was going through your mind when you received your first medal for valor in the army?
when i received my silver star for my first big combat operation i had been there a very short time, and i just did what i needed to do to support and protect my soldiers, my platoon. you're not thinking about a medal at that time; you're thinking about coming out of it alive. and so when i got back into base camp and was rewarded for that particular event, i was pleased—i was honored with the honor—but it was not something that you're there to do or gain or benefit from. you're there just to lead your platoon and get your folks home alive.
in 1966, the documentary the anderson platoon was released to show what it was like during the vietnam war. what persuaded you to participate in the documentary, and what did you want the outcome to be once it was released?
well, in the army things just are given to you or directed toward you, de'aundre. coming back from that first event, where i had received the silver star, i had a lot of visibility and high profile. and so, when this crew from france came to my organization, the 1st cavalry division, and my brigade, they assigned them to me. i was an african american, i was a west pointer, i had taken french in college at west point, and so they assigned them to me. i didn't ask for them. and quite frankly, i had some reservations about them in that i didn't know who these three people were that were part of this film crew. and i didn't know what they would do out in the field, maybe cause trouble and get us into difficulty, making noise at the wrong time or something. that turned out to be absolutely not the case, and they became lifelong friends. in fact, i visited pierre schoendoerffer, the producer, in france. so it was a great experience, but again not one that i had any choice about.
as it turned out, they were world travelers and had done a variety of things in difficult circumstances. pierre schoendoerffer himself had been captured and was a prisoner of war with the french army in vietnam, so he knew the country, knew the circumstances very well. he and his cameraman and sound man came to see what the americans were doing in vietnam, to carry that back to the french, who had been there earlier. but he did such a great job that it just took the country by storm in france.
he showed it on french television in the first part of 1967. it was so well received it showed again three weeks later. cbs heard about it, brought him to new york to have him narrate the documentary in english, and it was shown on the fourth of july 1967 in the united states. the same thing happened: it just took the country by storm. it was shown again three weeks later, and it won both an oscar and an emmy in 1967.
the automotive industry, as i understand it, has not been the best as far as being racially accepting or progressive. what was your experience like rising through your career?
i was recruited out of the army along with an air force two-star general. we were recruited to bring executive leadership in operations and manufacturing into the auto industry. and so i was interviewed by both ford and general motors with that goal in mind on their part. i made the decision to go with general motors and started out with pontiac motor division, in manufacturing, again leading people.
the auto industry has been a source of employment for minorities, for african americans, for many, many generations, coming out the south. when i came in, in the late '70s, early '80s, we were the first african american individuals in the executive group in manufacturing and operations. of course, subsequent to that time there have been a number of other high-level african american men and women in a variety of positions, and they've had african americans on the board of directors. so, from where they were, they've come a long way. are they where they can be and should be? not until there is an african american chairman of the board or an african american ceo. then we'll know we've arrived.
can you tell me how tag holdings, the company you run as ceo, came to be?
when i bought my first company in 1994 after leaving general motors, i went with a gentleman for a couple of months and then decided to do it on my own. tag holdings, standing for the anderson group, was the organizational structure that i created. as i would acquire companies, they would be under tag holdings. over the course of the years, i've bought and been majority owner of about 15 different companies. and they come and go in terms of me owning them, and then selling them.
what would you say is the most challenging part about being an african american ceo, especially with the social-justice climate we’re going through today?
i find it challenging, because the social-justice issues are real. every single day of my life i wake up i’m a black man in america and there's no two ways about that, and those realities face us. you watch the news every night and you see the issues that are going on, and it's challenging to say the least. nonetheless, in terms of the things that i do every day—operating my businesses, mentoring young men and women who ask how can they do what i do, serving on boards like the federal reserve bank board—those are all activities and responsibilities that i have assumed in spite of some of the issues and challenges that still exist about race in this country.
you're a successful african american man who drives nice cars. have you ever felt that people—especially police officers—felt you didn't belong in those cars because of your skin color?
in this calendar year, i’ve had two incidents. one, i was doing a little bit over the speed. i won't say how much, but a female police officer pulled me over and told me how fast i was going and she went back to her car and did her thing and came back and she said, "okay, i'm just going to give you a warning, because it was your birthday last week." and so what can i say except she treated me very nicely? i was stopped another time, i was driving my escalade, and he pulled me over and said, “you did a rolling stop with the traffic light." i said, "well, officer, nobody's around and i was just turning right." he did give me a ticket. so i guess that was a big deal, a black man in an escalade not stopping the vehicle fully. should i stop fully? obviously. is that something that everybody gets stopped for? i don’t know. but these are the kinds of issues and challenges that clearly come into your mind when driving while black.
you say you've personally experienced few instances of overt racism, but you lived through the civil rights movement. does america seem more inclusive today than it did in the '60s, or do the problems look the same now as then?
in terms of today's environment as an african american, as compared to the past, clearly individuals like myself, who are business owners, there are more and more of us, and african americans who are serving on public boards. those numbers have increased dramatically. there was a network of african americans who collaborated together called the executive leadership council, which was formed to help us mentor each other on how to be senior executives in major corporations. subsequent to that there was an organization formed called the black corporate directors conference, and that was put together to help us mentor each other on how to serve on boards. but there's no question that there is still a gap in terms of those who are having those kinds of successes. and the masses and majority of african americans with lower incomes, and levels of home ownership. all those things are dramatically behind the average for the country as a whole. so we've still got a lot of work to do. there's been some progress, without question, but there's still a lot of work left to do.
my final question is, what advice do you have for the next generation of black entrepreneurs?
the recommendation that i have for the next generation of entrepreneurs is learn from those of us who are already here. we've made mistakes. some of us have survived and learned from those lessons. use that as a starting point and be very focused on strategic perspectives that exist in the marketplace, in industry and so forth. and don't focus on where others of us have been, identify the opportunities in the future. engage and create a circumstance for yourself. opportunities are going to open up, because the marketplace likes winners. they like success. and, yes, there are more challenges, but on the other hand winners are winners, and the marketplace will support winners.
joseph anderson was interviewed and photographed for lift every voice, in partnership with lexus. lift every voice records the wisdom and life experiences of the oldest generation of black americans by connecting them with a new generation of black journalists. the complete series is running across hearst magazine, newspaper, and television sites around juneteenth 2021. go to oprahdaily.com/lifteveryvoice for more stories.
if you appreciated this story, there are two groups you could consider supporting: the national association of black journalists allows you to direct your dollars to scholarships and fellowships that support the educational and professional development of aspiring young journalists. the national caucus & center on black aging is dedicated to improving the quality of life of older african-americans with educational programs that provide them the tools they need to advocate for themselves.