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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?

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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.

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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.

That may be one reason it has become impossible for one person or organization to speak on behalf of all African Americans — or for all the entities within the community to agree on a single position. Civil rights groups came into existence when blacks were kept on the margins of the white mainstream. The common goal was an end to those restrictions.

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The results of those victories are the many competing voices speaking on behalf of black Americans, from the 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus and corporate executives to disagreeing media stars like Cornel West and the Rev. Al Sharpton to the nonprofits and, yes, the civil rights groups.

Few will dispute the economic and political progress that African Americans have made in the last half century. The election of President Obama was the culmination of a process that began with passage of the civil rights legislation of 1964-1965, giving blacks, for the first time, equal political standing before the law. That changed status opened doors for middle-class and upwardly mobile working-class black Americans.

Census data show that the percentage of blacks in poverty dropped from 55 percent in 1950 to a low of 22.5 percent in 2000. The number has since grown to nearly 26 percent. Yet throughout the 1990s and the early part of this 21st century, roughly one in three African Americans enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle — and a majority of blacks were no longer poor.

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That is why the Pew Research Center report that the wealth gap has widened between whites and blacks (as well as Hispanics) in the last five years is so disturbing. The data are reminders of the fragility of that black middle class, built on biweekly paychecks and plummeting property values. And this same community has been hard-hit by the recession, the home-mortgage crisis, and cutbacks in employment in both public and private sectors.

One measure of the distress is the number of people who have turned to organizations like the National Urban League for help. In his State of the Urban League report to his members last week, Morial noted that the league served 2.6 million clients in 2010, a record number — and 25 percent more than in 2009. "If we didn't exist, someone would want to invent us," Morial told me earlier in an interview.

No doubt, the league provides valuable services. But one question that must be asked: How could the league be more effective? 

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The same corporations that willingly exhibit at the league's convention are sitting on billions of dollars that could be invested in hiring and kick-starting the economy. Morial says he understands their hesitation to hire as a response to weak consumer demand.  But shouldn't civil rights groups like his pressure their corporate partners to show more leadership and take more risks in these difficult times? 

We should also ask what leverage civil rights group have with a president who dares show no favoritism to blacks. And what is the role of any civil rights group in a global economy that is undergoing a profound transformation, with indications that many of the jobs that once fueled the black middle class are lost forever?

One sign of hope may be the vigorous young professionals program that the league has nurtured to bring fresh blood to the organization. They could bring new ideas and, eventually, a new militancy to challenge this uncertain time.

Joel Dreyfuss is The Root's managing editor.