National Urban League Turns 100

The National Urban League, is one of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organizations, celebrates its 100th anniversary this week. Host Michel Martin talks to the National Urban League’s president Marc Morial about how the civil rights organization came to be a century ago and the role it serves now.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. That landmark act was signed 20 years ago this week. We'll hear from two people who can tell us how that landmark legislation changed the lives of millions and what's left to do. That's a little later.

But, first, the National Urban League is 100 years old this, celebrating the centennial at a conference in Washington, D.C. The Urban League is one of the country's largest and oldest civil rights organizations. Its mission: to elevate the standard of living in historically underserved urban communities.

Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League - president and CEO -is still with us after our initial conversation about the Shirley Sherrod issue. Thanks for sticking around.

Mr. MORIAL: Good music.

MARTIN: Excellent. Excellent. So, a final thought about the Shirley Sherrod case. You were talking about the fact that people need to kind of hold their fire, as it were, and learn to listen.

Mr. MORIAL: And get the facts. And, you know, get the facts. Especially when you're dealing with videos and you're dealing with documents. The, you know, there's so much pressure now to respond within a news cycle, the desire to do something immediately robs you of the deliberative approach that's sometimes necessary in decision making.

And so, you know, I have great confidence in Ben Jealous. He and I have worked together before. He's a strong leader and I know he certainly regrets what occurred and what happened. But let's lift up Ms. Sherrod. Let's lift up her story. Let's lift up her work. She's a great woman and a great American.

MARTIN: Let's talk about that. The Urban League, as we mentioned, founded 100 years ago, a different country then. But the African-American population remains disproportionately affected by a number of burdens, health disparities, academic achievement gaps, and right now, of course, in the middle of this recession, a significantly higher unemployment than the rest of the population.

You participated earlier this year in a meeting at the White House with black leaders about the manner in which the economic crisis was affecting African-Americans. So I want to ask, what came out of that meeting? As you know, there's continuing questions about whether African-Americans, for all their excitement about having the first black president, are indeed as well served by this administration as they could be.

Mr. MORIAL: Well, I think just to sort of put this week in context, the National Urban League, we like to say we're 100 years young because we're celebrating not only our first 100 years, but this is going to be a launch pad for our second 100 years with the release of a blueprint for civil rights and economic opportunity for our second century. I think that President Obama has accomplished some big things. The health care, comprehensive health reform bill is a big thing that's going to bring benefits in years to come.

The bank reform legislation, which is going to give us for the first time a chance to ban, eliminate, restrict predatory lending practices, which we've been working on arguing for, pushing for for a number of years. The stimulus that I think has produced a number of jobs - up to two million jobs - I go back to the fact it should have been larger and it could have been larger.

We will continue to press the president and the Congress on the idea that you need additional steps, additional efforts that are targeted to deal with the unemployment problem, to deal with the jobless problem in urban communities. And we'll outline some steps tomorrow night as a part of the opening of the conference that the nation can take to do this.

But let me say this. We watched this week the use of the filibuster to block action on summer jobs. The president was for it, a majority of the House is for it, a majority of the Senate has supported it. Certainly advocacy groups like ours, we supported it. But it was blocked by a filibuster. So people need to also understand that in the dynamic process, the president doesn't have the only word on what legislation, on what efforts, on what steps are going to be taken to try to address the economy.

MARTIN: And, finally, we only have a minute left, and I apologize for that. What steps is the Urban League taking now to bring its agenda into the 21st century and beyond for the next 100 years?

Mr. MORIAL: I want - we have the I Am Empowered campaign which people can learn about at Iamempowered.com, focuses on education, jobs, housing and health care. We want to use technology to organize people. And we want to elevate the work we do in communities.

Michel, what we do in communities is provide services to people, job training, afterschool, early childhood, home buyer preparation, foreclosure mitigation services, health services. We provide services to people. So we're in the trench. We're working with people. We're going to continue to do that. So, Iamempowered.com.

MARTIN: Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League. He was kind enough to step away from the conference for a minute, his annual conference this minute to speak with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Please come back.

Mr. MORIAL: Thank you, good luck with the show.

MARTIN: Thank you.

Mr. MORIAL: All right, take care.

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