By MARC H. MORIAL
National Urban League
“There can be no time-outs in the fight for freedom and equality. We must continue to help America understand that we hold America’s values dearly. At times, it seemed as if we were the only ones who did. When this nation was in the grip of racism and segregation, it was Black people who reminded America of its basic values of freedom and democracy.” – Vernon E. Jordan Jr., National Urban League executive director, 1971-1981
As the leader of the nation’s largest historic civil rights organization, I am keenly aware of my responsibility to carry a legacy dating back more than 100 years. I have been fortunate to have three of my successors serve as mentors and advisors, and next week, at our annual Equal Opportunity Day dinner, the National Urban League will honor their vast contributions with the Visionary Warrior Award.
Vernon E. Jordan Jr., John Jacob and Hugh Price together represent 50 years of empowering communities and changing lives. My successors have led not only this organization, but also our communities through some incredibly challenging times, and triumphed over adversity to bring us where we are today, stronger and more influential than ever before.
When Jordan took over the helm in 1971, the nation had passed the Fair Housing Act only three years earlier. The effects of legal segregation, of legal barriers to the accumulation of wealth through homeownership, affected every aspect of African American life. Under his watch, the NUL saw a major expansion of services as the movement became a conduit for the federal government to establish programs and deliver services.
It was Jordan who produced the first State of Black America report in 1976, after both President Gerald Ford’s State of the Union Address and Sen. Edmund Muskie’s response completely ignored the crisis then facing Black Americans.
Jordan’s tenure was significant for its emphasis on research, including the landmark book Strengths of Black Families that countered the negative stereotypes of the Moynahan Report.
In 1982, when John Jacob took over at the beginning of the Reagan Administration, the nation was experiencing a backlash against social services and the demonization of underserved urban Americans. Under his leadership, the National Urban League fought back forcefully, responding to the proposed slashing investments in urban America with a blistering report, Don’t Just Stand There and Kill Us that persuaded Congress to ease up on the planned cuts.
Jacob saw a generation of children at risk – risk of drug abuse, crime and incarceration, at risk of dropping out of school, at risk of unstable family lives and early, violent death. His response was a commitment to young people called the National Urban League Incentives to Excel & Succeed – known as NULITES. Thirty years later, Jacob’s vision has grown into the National Urban League Youth Leadership Summit, one of the nation’s largest and most ambitious educational events for young people anywhere in the county.
Price, taking over in 1994, battled indifference to police brutality and excessive use of force, and succeeded in opening the nation’s eyes to that injustice.
He brought to the organization a keen focus on academic achievement, establishing a National Achievers society, a community-based honor society for Black students who earned a B average or better. He cited the 1999 induction ceremony at the San Diego affiliate as one of his proudest moments, “The enthusiasm at this event made a lasting impression. It was an epiphany for me. It showed beyond a shadow of doubt that we can motivate them to achieve.”
We recently recognized one of Price’s signature achievements with the 20th anniversary of the Young Professionals, the affinity group that he had the foresight and vision to create. For 20 years, the National Urban League Young Professionals have been at the heart, not just of the Urban League Movement, but also of the greater 21st Century movement for civil rights and economic justice.
I’m proud and humbled to have the opportunity continue the legacy of these three Visionary Warriors and look forward to honoring them next week.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League. He can be reached through https://nul.org.