Urban League: Empowered Enough?

Can the 101-year-old civil rights group's services-focused approach help a recession-battered black community?

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The National Urban League wrapped up its annual conference in Boston this weekend, celebrating 101 years of existence. The news backdrop was hugely significant. President Obama and the Republicans wrestled with the debt limit on the cable networks and in the back rooms, with the likely outcome of further shrinking the already fragile social safety net for less fortunate Americans.

There was the disheartening Pew report on the widening wealth gap between whites and people of color and news that the U.S economy was faltering, with less than 1 percent GDP growth in the last quarter. This was as good a time as any to ask: What is the role of the National Urban League in 2011 -- or any of our civil rights organizations -- in these moments of distress?

Summer is when black organizations traditionally meet to assess and regroup. The National Urban League, the NAACP, black fraternities and sororities, black doctors, black journalists and black MBAs have big annual conferences or conventions, hand one another awards, debate important issues and throw great parties.

In many ways, the Urban League's conference was a model of positivism and prosperity. Led by former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial since 2003, it has adopted an I'm-not-a-victim slogan, "I Am Empowered," that was visible in all printed material and plastered all over the Boston Convention Center. Delegates to the convention were sharp, well-dressed and prosperous.

Founded in 1910 to help migrating blacks adjust to life in the big city, the league is different from most civil rights groups. Because it has long been an organization that delivers services, including counseling and job training, many of its programs have corporate and government funding. Its leaders have a history of fostering ties with the private sector and those in political power. When corporations began opening their doors to professionals of color in the early 1970s, the league helped them find qualified college graduates.

Power broker Vernon Jordan, who, as a young attorney, ran the league from 1971 to 1981, played tennis with Nixon-administration biggie John Ehrlichman at the height of the Watergate scandal. Jordan recalls in a memoir, Vernon Can Read, that when a young employee of the league chastised him for socializing with the Republicans, he replied: "I'm playing tennis with John Ehrlichman so you can continue to be a $20,000-a-year militant."

Morial has also nurtured relationships with government and business. Just before the convention started, he visited President Obama at the White House and issued a statement supporting job creation -- and plugging his own 12-Point Jobs Plan. Corporate ties were on full display in Boston. At the center of the convention floor, the vast exhibit space looked like an industry trade show, awash in blue-chip companies, from automakers Ford and Toyota to financial institutions like HSBC and Bank of America to data-storage giant EMC and pharmacist CareMark/CVS.

Companies on the floor swear fealty to diversity and -- not coincidentally -- to selling products to an African-American consumer market. That market will spend an estimated $836 billion this year, according to Target Market News, giving it a size somewhere between the economies of the Netherlands and South Korea.

The close ties to companies were also evident on Friday, when an executive from Advance America, the controversial payday lender, joined Morial to announce the second stage of the Director Inclusion Initiative, a program that prepares senior African-American managers at nonprofit organizations to serve on the boards of directors of public corporations. The first class has finished a year of training in corporate accounting and securities regulations, but none has yet won a place on a corporate board. In May the Alliance for Board Diversity reported that African-American men lost 42 seats on corporate boards in 2010.

The directors' initiative is important, even critical, since corporations have such a profound impact on our lives -- although, in the end it prepares only a trickle of black men and women to join an elite inner circle of Americans: members of corporate boards. It's a reminder that black America has evolved a complex geography: Within its virtual borders exists a wide range of people -- from some of the poorest in our nation to those who interact at the highest levels of society.