What's On The National Urban League's Agenda This Year?

Jobs are the focus of this year's National Urban League Conference in Philadelphia. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with President and CEO Marc Morial, about how the League has progressed on that front, and asks about the biggest issues facing African-Americans today.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we look at how race and immigration status affect the economic and educational well-being of American children. But first, we check in with a group that sought equality for African-Americans for more than a century. We're talking about the National Urban League. The organization is holding its annual conference in Philadelphia this week. And joining us to talk about it is Marc Morial, the National Urban League's president and CEO. Welcome back to the program.

MARC MORIAL: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: The theme of this year's conference is the same as it's been a couple other times before - jobs. How much progress do you think your group, the National Urban League, has made on that since the Great Recession ended?

MORIAL: Well, we've been economic first responders across the nation, helping probably between 20 to 25,000 people find jobs each and every year. This past May, we announced a new initiative called Jobs Rebuild America. And that initiative will touch 50 American cities, will provide additional programming resources in the area of job training, small business and entrepreneurship services, and afterschool programs.

And it's a tripod approach that brings government, the private sector, along with the nonprofit Urban League affiliates at the local level together to deliver these services. We are intentional and determined to make a big difference on the jobs front as much as we can.

HEADLEE: Well, let's pivot a little bit here and turn from the economy to social justice. You obviously had a big address at the conference. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke there Thursday about the Voting Rights Act. That follows, of course, this year's Supreme Court decision that struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. Let's take a listen to a bit of what Eric Holder said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC HOLDER SPEECH)

ERIC HOLDER: I've already directed the department's civil rights division to shift resources through the enforcement of a number of federal voting laws that are not affected by the Supreme Court's decision, including the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act, prohibiting voting discrimination based on race, color, or language.

HEADLEE: Obviously, this is an issue that's near and dear to your members' hearts. What exactly does your organization do to help protect voting rights across the country?

MORIAL: Well, we're a powerful legislative advocate and in this instance, we are supportive of the attorney general's steps in his announcement. But secondly, we're involved in the legislative process with what is a necessary legislative fix to the decision by the Supreme Court to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. So we're working on that fix and we're going to encourage a bipartisan coalition to support that fix. Thirdly, in 2000...

HEADLEE: ...Meaning - let me stop there for just one second. Meaning that you're trying to get them to draw up legislation that would reinstate the enforcement portion.

MORIAL: Exactly, to design a new coverage provision, a piece of legislation - and Representatives John Lewis and Jim Sensenbrenner and Jim Clyburn and John Conyers - on the Senate side, Senator Pat Leahy have been intimately involved in trying to do this. They've already held hearings, we're supportive of those hearings. We submitted testimony to those hearings, and we're working with them. When the legislation is finalized and is dropped, we'll put our efforts behind getting it passed.

HEADLEE: Let me ask you something. In 2012, reportedly, black participation in the election exceeded white participation for the first time in United States history. I wonder what you attribute that to. Is it simply Barack Obama and his place as the first African-American president?

MORIAL: Combination of factors - I think the president's historic status helped. I think the difficult economic times spurred people to vote. And I thirdly think that the effort to suppress the vote backlashed tremendously on those who proposed these voter suppression laws around the nation. And I think that combination of factors, I think, helped to compel this record voter turnout in the African-American community.

HEADLEE: So that would mean, of course, do you have concerns that once Barack Obama is no longer running for office, that was the last election he ever has to campaign for, that black participation in the election process, and voting, will go down?

MORIAL: Well, look, we will be working to ensure that that doesn't happen, and it absolutely should not happen. But President Obama has had a catalyzing impact. He's increased voter turnout in many, many places in America. And one of the places where he's helped to increase voter turnout is in the African-American community.

But let there be no mistake about the fact that the voter identification laws, voter ID laws, attempts to eliminate early voting, making the lines longer - all of these things, across the board, help to compel. When people felt like there was an effort to deny their vote, they were determined to make sure they did vote.

HEADLEE: The timing of the conference is at a particularly, perhaps volatile, time for the country. Many African-Americans are still processing, working through the not guilty verdict in the case of George Zimmerman. And you and I are speaking before Trayvon Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, is set to address your conference. So what are you hearing at the conference, what kind of conversations are going on...

MORIAL: ...A great deal of anger. There's a great deal of anger about the verdict. Not only the verdict and what it means for Trayvon and his parents - but that the verdict somehow is symbolic of many of the maladies that exist in the American criminal justice system. The over-incarceration, the arrests that take place, the prosecution to the fullest extent of the law of non-violent criminals. All of these maladies have been exposed by the Trayvon Martin case. And it's on the minds of our people.

HEADLEE: Let me ask you to respond to some of the criticisms that have come, especially in mainstream media, in which there have been some commentators saying, you know, the African-American community is not being realistic and that young black men are more likely to commit violent crimes. Why are they making this about race?

MORIAL: Well, look, one of the subjects I discussed, for example, at our keynote address, was black-on-black violence and how it outrages us and how we need to do more to try to stop it. I think many of the forces that criticize us are not part of those conversations. They're not aware of what is talked about. What they're aware of is what headlines are in the newspaper.

HEADLEE: Well, then let me bring it straight to you as a representative of the National Urban League - many of the problems that face the African-American community are linked in some way to poverty, to the issues of living in an urban neighborhood. What exactly does the National Urban League do to address some of these issues, some of the issues that make young black men vulnerable, especially when it comes to, as you said, the criminal justice system, education, employment?

MORIAL: I mean, so much of our focus is on working with children. So much of our focus is trying to help prevent crime. So much of our focus is trying to help young people get educated so that they can go on to high school and college and beyond. That is our focus, and we think that we have to invest in our young people and by investing in our young people, we will make them better off.

HEADLEE: If these are programs that you have been focused on for a very long time, are there other things that you could be doing now? I mean, if you've been focused on these particular programs for a while, what's missing?

MORIAL: I think what's missing is that the scale of our programs is not far enough, deep enough, or wide enough. For example, we have a program in Cleveland where we're working with young men and women who have been involved in the criminal justice system. In that program, we've got maybe 50 to 60 slots. We could use 500 slots. We could use 1,500 slots, but there are no resources in order to do that. To some extent, scale is the issue, being able to serve everyone who needs to be served versus being exclusive. That's the challenges we face.

HEADLEE: And is that best addressed by an organization like yours or by the federal government?

MORIAL: I mean, I think that that has to be addressed by all of us, if it's a deep crisis. If it is the kind of crisis that is costing America its economic competitiveness, costing us many, many potential workers, and creating a great deal of conflict in the community. Then it is everybody's business.

It's the government's business, it's the private sector's business. It's advocacy organization's business. It is criminal justice system players' business - meaning players - meaning police officers, probation officers, and the like. We all must deal with it.

HEADLEE: That's Marc Morial, he's the president and CEO of the National Urban League. He was kind enough to join us from their annual conference in Philadelphia this year. Thanks so much, Marc.

MORIAL: Thanks for having me.

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