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Upon 100th Birthday: NUL Chief Says America Needs More Civil Rights Warriors

Hazel Trice Edney | 7/9/2010, 11:28 a.m.

Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, says despite the strength of modern-day civil rights organizations and the fact that NUL is about to celebrate its 100th birthday, there are still not enough civil rights warriors to bring about the level of Black progress that is needed.

"People should never be confused that we are somehow competing with each other; that we are somehow rivals to one another or that somehow we are doing the exact same thing with one another in the duplication of services. I would say that there are not enough civil rights organizations. There are not enough soldiers in the battle," says Morial in an interview with the NNPA News Service.

Morial is gearing up for the 100th birthday of the National Urban League, which was founded in 1910 at the beginning of legalized segregation. The NUL celebration, to be held July 28-31 in Washington, D.C., comes on the heels of the 100th birthday of the NAACP last year. The two are giants among several key civil rights organizations in 2010. But even with their solid forces, African-Americans are still struggling.

"I am constantly asked what is the distinction between the Urban League and other civil rights organizations," Morial said. "We all share a mission. That mission is social justice and economic equality. That's the mission and objective. But, we're each unique in the way we work toward that objective. We all bring different things to the table."

Describing some of the leading civil rights organizations, he said the NUL brings direct services to people, including help with job searches and skills, after school and early childhood services as well as public policy advocacy for social and economic issues.

"The NAACP is much more of a policy and grassroots community mobilization effort focused on discrimination of all types. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund is a public interest law firm; the National Action Network and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition are grassroots advocacy organizations," he described.

There is enough work for them all, he said - and then some.

"This recession and certainly the subprime crisis have cost us more economically than perhaps any other time in history except maybe the great depression. Our home ownership rate has gone down by 3 percent. Our unemployment rate has shot up - nearly doubled. It has cost us a great deal, no doubt about that," he said. "It's where it will end up, we don't know because now that we're in a recovery, the issue is whether we're going to be left behind."

Despite the struggles that are obviously still ahead, Morial was clear about one thing: "We're far better than we were a hundred years ago, we are far better off than we were 50 years ago, even taking into account the recession and the depression and the economic downturn," he said.

When the NUL was founded, it was in direct response to the era of sudden disenfranchisement and economic struggles resulting from the U. S. Supreme Court's approval of segregation in the 1896 Plessey v. Ferguson decision, establishing a Jim Crow stronghold across the South. The work of the organization, first founded in New York City on Sept. 29, 1910 as the Committee on Urban Conditions, became pivotal for African-Americans as many fled, migrating northward in hope of better lives.

According to the NUL's official history at www.nul.org, "Those newcomers to the North soon discovered they had not escaped racial discrimination. Excluded from all but menial jobs in the larger society, victimized by poor housing and education, and inexperienced in the ways of urban living, many lived in terrible social and economic conditions."

Mrs. Ruth Standish Baldwin and Dr. George Edmund Haynes, who would become the Committee's first executive secretary, are credited as being central to the organization's founding. Fast forward a hundred years later, the NUL now has 100 affiliates in 36 states, plus Washington, D.C. It has the same mission of fighting for social and economic equality as civil rights.

"Nothing was more difficult and sinister than the betrayal after reconstruction, where the country had fought a civil war, had changed the constitution, had moved toward a society of participation and equality by African-Americans and then in the 1890s and the 20th century, was wiped out by what I call American apartheid," Morial says. "It was a massive betrayal."

The aftermath of that betrayal remains in communities throughout the nation. But, the NUL is prepared to fight for as long as it takes, says Morial.
"Sometimes we are cynical because we've faced so much, so many barriers. But, I think we are so very keen about the idea of economic advancement toward economic equality because we are looking to the future," says Morial. "A lot of the inspiration of Black people is the idea that they want the next generation to be better off."

With registration running at least five times ahead of normal, as many as 3,000 to 5,000 people are expected at the grand celebration. An overall focus will be "reconnecting all the people that the Urban League has touched" from the past to the here and now, Morial says. The celebration will include a major outreach focus with an effort to grow the organization. There will be a social mobilization platform, inviting people to join the NUL's online communities, including Face Book and Twitter. "We're asking old-timers and new-timers," Morial said.

The first day will be focused on the first 100 years of the NUL with special guests including civil rights legends such as Vernon Jordan, Andrew Young, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Congressman John Lewis. The second day will focus on a younger more contemporary group. On Friday, the third day, there will be a massive volunteer community service effort encouraging participants to take off their suits and go out into the community and work, Morial said.

President Barack Obama has been invited to attend, but has not yet confirmed, he said. With all eyes on the White House during the economic downturn - especially the disparate impact on Blacks - an absence by the President would be glaring, Morial agreed. Besides, when he was a presidential candidate, he promised that he would attend, Morial recalls.

"We're hoping that he will be there. It's important for him to be there."