As mayor of New Orleans, Marc Morial wasn’t afraid to take risks, whether it involved confronting the gun lobby or tryingand failingin his bid to run for a third term. Now head of the National Urban League, Morial is determined to raise the organization’s profile and place it center stage in the fight for economic equality, “the last frontier in the civil rights movement.”
The two men stood on the stage of the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Hotel ballroom last summer, one black and one white, with vastly different political beliefs and backgroundsyet united in their lineage as the sons of famous men who had chosen to follow their fathers into public service, trading on their family name but intent on carving out their own legacy.
The occasion was the 2004 annual conference of the National Urban League, at which one of the menMarc Morial C’80, NUL president and CEO and former mayor of New Orleansplayed host to the other, President George W. Bush.
Of Bush’s praise of Morial as “a good man” who “cares deeply about the people in our country,” all the lifelong Democrat will say, with a wry smile, is that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” He prefers to call attention to the fact that the president’s appearance made the Urban League one of the very few non-military or veteran’s groups able to snag both Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry to speak at its conference in the course of last year’s increasingly rancorous election campaign.
“That made a powerful statement, I think, about what we are and who we are at the Urban League,” Morial says during an interview in his corner office at NUL’s headquarters at the southern tip of Wall Street, the sun reflecting off the waters of Upper New York Bay in the background and the steady thrum of traffic providing a backbeat below.
The 46-year-old Morial speaks in measured tones, choosing his words with care as he articulates the challenges that face the NUL, a racially diverse organization that has traditionally had a lower profile than the more strident NAACP, but one that has been an effective force for change in its nearly 100-year history. His demeanor belies the basic fact that in his professional life at least, this is a man who seems to want things done in a hurry, on his own timetablefirst as a state senator in Louisiana in his early thirties and then as the highly popular two-term mayor of New Orleans starting at the age of 36, a period in which, among other initiatives, he led a groundbreaking effort to hold the gun industry accountable for the toll its products were taking on inner-city lives.
“The challenges that face the Urban League are the challenges that face urban America and black America,” Morial says. Four decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, moving into the 21st century the focus is on closing the economic gaps that still exist. Morial calls economic issues “the last frontier in the civil-rights movement.”
“I’m prepared to say that things are better in many ways than they were 40 years ago,” he continues. “The numbers show that in many respects. However, it’s so paradoxical. Because you can say, for example, that the poverty rate among African Americans has been cut in half. And that’s significant. But it’s still three times higher than it is for white America.
“As things have gotten better for the nation as a whole in many areas, the tide has risen. But the boats at the bottom of the tide have remained at the bottom of the tide.”
To illustrate his point, Morial produces the latest edition of The State of Black America, a collection of essays and reports that the Urban League has been producing regularly since 1976. The 2004 volume, subtitled The Complexity of Black Progress, added a new feature, the Equality Index, which measures how black America stacks up against white America in several key areas first enunciated by Morial in his inaugural address as president of the organization as part of what he called a five-point “empowerment agenda.” They include: education and youth, economic empowerment, health and quality of life, civic engagement, and civil rights and racial justice. (More information about the index is available at the NUL’s website, www.nul.org.)
The analysis is sobering. Using census reports and econometrics to quantify the relationship, the study concludes that if white Americans are considered the model, or 1.00, then black Americans are currently at 0.73 compared to the conditions of whites. Referring to Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, in which blacks were counted as three-fifths of a white person for purposes of taxation and representation in Congress, the Equality Index authors point out that, in the intervening 217 years since the ratifying of the Constitution, blacks have advanced only from having roughly 60 percent of the status of a white person to today’s 73 percent.
The NUL under Morial is attacking the continuing economic disparities through a variety of initiatives. One program funded in part by a $900,000 grant from Citigroup teaches people “financial literacy”that is, how to effectively manage bank accounts, investments, and credit. Other programs have created youth job-training centers at 15 NUL affiliates and digital “empowerment academies” for computer training in 10 other locations. A partnership with Baton Rouge-based Stonehenge Capital Company has created, with the help of federal tax credits, a $127.5 million fund to invest in, and provide financial counseling to, small businesses located in low-income communities.
In his keynote speech at last year’s conference, Morial said that during his tenure the Urban League must “reclaim our historic role as the economic voice of black America, of American cities, of people of all colors who are weak, disadvantaged and dispossessed.”
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