Marc Morial's 2013 State of the Urban League Address: The New Civil Rights Movement for Economic Empowerment & Justice

2013 State of the Urban League Address

Marc H. Morial, President & CEO of the National Urban League
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Media Contact: Latraviette D. Smith, 212-558-5433 or

July 24, 2013

Hello Philadelphia!

Hello Urban Leaguers!

Welcome to the 2013 National Urban League Conference in this great city of Philadelphia.

I want to thank Mayor Michael Nutter and the people of this city for greeting us with open arms. We also could not have done this without Patricia Coulter and her team at The Urban League of Philadelphia, helping us plan one of the most impactful Conferences in our 103-year history.

This is like a homecoming for me, as I spent my early adult years here as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. You hear about it all the time, but until you experience it, you can’t imagine the capacity for “Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection” that is the soul of this city.

As we rededicate ourselves to the enduring values of the Urban League Movement – in the face of both old and new challenges – it is also fitting that we meet here in the birthplace of American Democracy. America’s independence was declared here. Our Constitution was written and signed here. And over the next four days, we intend to join our forces, raise our voices and let freedom ring again here.

I think that’s what Pat Coulter meant when she referred to her city...our city - because Philadelphia belongs to all of us who believe in freedom. The words on the Liberty Bell, borrowed from the book of Leviticus, say it all:

Let us “Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land Unto All the Inhabitants Thereof.” This is what this city represents. This is what the National Urban League represents. And this is why we have come to Philly.

Now when I think of Philly and the surrounding areas – a few things come to mind…home to Ben Franklin, WC Fields, Bill Cosby, Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, and the late Bill Gray…and Cheyney and Lincoln universities, the two oldest HBCUs in the country. And who could forget those famous cheesesteaks and championship sports teams?

But I also think about some of the most insightful, inspirational and soulful music that America has known in the last 50 years.
You see, along the way, we’ve listened to some great sounds of Philadelphia – like the O’Jays, who proclaimed that we “Got to Give the People What They Want”…and who could forget when they taught us about economic empowerment:

[CUE MUSIC] - O’Jays, “For the Love of Money”

Or when they first taught us about the power of family:

[CUE MUSIC] – O’Jays, “Family Reunion”

And it was Sister Sledge who echoed that spirit of togetherness:

[CUE MUSIC] – Sister Sledge, “We Are Family”

And we all must remember Chubby Checker, who inspired a nation to twist, a little something like this:

[CUE MUSIC] - Chubby Checker, “The Twist” - [PLAY TWIST VIDEO]

And Patti Labelle taught many of us how to speak a little French:

[CUE MUSIC] – Patti Labelle, “Lady Marmalade”

And what about good ol’ Teddy? Teddy Pendergrass told us…

[CUE MUSIC] – Teddy Pendergrass, “Turn Off the Lights” [PLAY ONLY “TURN OFF THE LIGHTS”

And as Teddy sang with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, they implored a nation to wake up from a collective slumber:

[CUE MUSIC] – Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “Wake Up Everybody”

Now, we’ve witnessed some events in the last 30 days that have made us all question whether we were living in 1963 – or two, zero, one, three…events that have made the call to “Wake Up” ring just a little louder.

I’m going to address those this evening. But as we move forward, it’s also critical to see just how far we’ve come – together. So first, let’s look back to 1963 and the next couple of decades that changed a nation…

We sported the conk and the bouffant – and had competitions for who could grow the biggest ‘fro…[SLIDES]

We drove in these cars…[SLIDES]
We watched these television shows… [SLIDES]

We boogied to these artists…[SLIDES]

We were introduced to these life-changing inventions…[SLIDES]

And we were inspired by these history-changing people and events that we could never forget…

But remember, 1963.

1963 was a year of deep tragedy and high hopes in America. Think about it. It was 50 years ago last month – June 12, 1963 – that tragedy struck in Jackson, Mississippi when Medgar Evers was killed by an assassin’s bullet in the drive way of his home – with his wife and children inside.

Next month – on Aug. 28 – will be 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, organized in part by our own Whitney M. Young, Jr., and challenged this nation to live up to the founding ideals that were conceived in Philadelphia and engraved in that Liberty Bell.

Not even a month later, as of September 15, we will mark 50 years since an act of – what we would now call – domestic terrorism occurred at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. On that day, four little Black girls – Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair – were killed prior to Sunday service when a bomb planted by white supremacists exploded.

Two months later, on November 22, we will observe the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a new generation President who rejected old thinking and embraced the changing times.

The events, both good and bad, of 1963, awakened the conscience of this nation and sped up the wheels of progress. I mention these events, not to elicit tears or sadness, but to remind you of both the sacrifices and the progress that have been made over the past 50 years. These events directly led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

And along the way, we have hoped, we’ve prayed, we’ve chanted, we’ve sang, we’ve stood, we’ve sat…we’ve fought.

Most – but not all – of the legal impediments to equal opportunity have now been eliminated and African Americans are making our mark in every field – academia, business, science and technology, the arts, government, public service.

Along the way, we’ve had powerful allies in the business community, labor unions, religious leadership and others – who may not have looked like us – but stood beside us and fought with us to break down barriers toward a more just and equal nation.
Our own State of Black America this year found that since 1963, we have made tremendous gains in school enrollment and educational attainment. Fifty years ago, 75% of Black adults had not completed high school. Currently, 85% of Black adults have a high school education. At the college level, there are now 3.5 times more Blacks enrolled, and five times as many Blacks hold a college degree.

And along the way, we’ve elected mayors and governors, senators and state legislators. We’ve seen African Americans climb to lead major corporations, win Oscars and Tonys and Grammys, head national sports teams and forge a way that was unimaginable just one generation before.

Just this past January, something that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago occurred – for the second time – when Barack Obama was sworn-in for another four years as President of the United States.

Indeed, much has changed over the course of 50 years…

[SLIDES OF 1963/2013]

The president then…the president now…

From the afro pick…to the bald and slick…

From the touch-tone…to the iPhone…

And the sounds of Philadelphia are still soulful – but with a different kind of twist…

DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince gave us a summer anthem…

[CUE MUSIC] – DJ Jazzy Jeff/Fresh Prince, “Summertime”

And Jill Scott encouraged us to live life like it’s “golden”:

[CUE MUSIC] – Jill Scott, “Golden”

And now listen to this – 35 years after Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes called on a nation to “wake up” – the Philly-based Roots, along with John Legend and Melanie Fiona re-issued that call – to a new generation.

And we’re re-issuing that call tonight. It’s time to wake up. “Wake Up Everybody. No more sleeping in bed. No more backward thinking, time for thinking ahead.”

[CUE MUSIC] – John Legend/The Roots, “Wake Up”

As much has changed, too much remains the same…

Still, without a doubt, we have seen progress in our nation – and we’ve come this far together.

Along the way, you honored me by giving me an opportunity to lead this mighty organization and this mighty movement, and through our work, help keep this nation on a course of continual improvement. When I joined the National Urban League 10 years ago, our movement was at a critical crossroads. Ten years and more than 15 million people served later, I am proud to report that the State of the Urban League Movement is strong. Together, we are more focused and more consistent. We are serving more people and giving more people the opportunity to serve.

And along the way, iconic Urban League leaders, who propelled us to new heights, retired – John Mack, Sylvia Brooks, James Compton and James Buford, and now Mardene Cooper…and they are being followed by a new generation who stands on their shoulders.

Together, we’ve set a new course with the introduction of our five-point Empowerment Agenda. We introduced the State of Black America Equality Index to better measure the widening gaps in the racial divide.

During our year-long centennial celebration in 2010, we declared “I AM EMPOWERED” and challenged ourselves and the nation to meet a set of measureable goals by the year 2025 in the areas of jobs, education, housing, and health. [SHOW “I AM EMPOWERED” GOALS SLIDE]

In 2006, we led the effort to extend and expand the historic Voting Rights Act and testified before Congress. Then last year, when changes to statewide voting laws threatened to disenfranchise millions of their vote in the 2012 elections, we responded again – this time with our “Occupy the Vote” initiative. We directly reached 10 million people with voting rights education and a call to fully participate in our democratic process. The result? Historic voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election.

And along the way we’ve added programs like Project Lead, Project Rock, Project Evergreen and Project Phoenix to improve and enhance affiliate sustainability. Together, we established new affiliate performance assessments, and now have a total of 12 affiliates that score a perfect 5 on a 1 to 5 rating scale.

And so I salute these dynamic dozen - Buffalo led by Brenda McDuffie; Cincinnati led by Donna Jones Baker; Fort Lauderdale led by Germaine Smith Baugh; Knoxville led by Phyllis Nicholas; Miami led by T. Willard Fair; Oklahoma City led by Valerie Thompson; Philadelphia led by Patricia Coulter; Pittsburgh led by Esther Bush; Rochester led by William Clark; St. Louis, which was the first affiliate to receive a 5.0 rating, led by the legendary James Buford; Springfield led by Nina Harris; and West Palm Beach led by Patrick Franklin.

We set a high standard, and you all have met it. You are our best and you set a remarkable example for everyone in the Urban League Movement. You are our perfect fives.

And along the way through our 10 years together, we’ve provided more professional development training to Urban League affiliate staff, including specialized training for fiscal officers, through the Whitney M. Young Jr. Leadership Conference. We’ve also increased professional training for Affiliate Board members and Board Chairs to help ensure they receive the development necessary to better serve the affiliates.

We’ve increased and diversified funding sources for our National movement and our affiliates, providing more grant funding to the Urban League affiliates than ever before in the areas of Education, Entrepreneurship, Housing and Workforce – and have seen affiliate revenues increase by more than 30% from 2003-2011.

And now, because of simple bad decisions driven by partisan politics and an unwillingness to compromise in Washington, cutbacks due to the sequestration and arbitrary budget-chopping have already begun to have a direct, Reagan-esque impact on our affiliate revenues.

So, why are these things important? Assessment, professional development, diversified funding? These things are important because we are determined to be the best. The best at serving people. The best at managing people. The best at measuring outcomes. Anything less is selling ourselves short. We want those who invest in us to know that we are excellent stewards of those investments, and we deliver outcomes. When it comes to these things, I want us to say with candor – and humility – we are the best at what we do.

And along the way, social media came in and gave us a new understanding of how to communicate in ways we never had before. So, we increased our outreach – and our reach – with an established social media presence including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We leveraged the I AM EMPOWERED web platform to support the affiliate movement, and are piloting the development of a joint area website for our Tennessee affiliates that will serve as a hub for them to cluster and share information. We hope to expand this pilot, along with the development of a centralized database, to ensure that we continue to increase our connectivity – resulting in stronger collaboration and a faster transfer of information across our network.

Together, we became accredited by the Better Business Bureau and received an A-rating from Charity Watch and a 4-star rating from Charity Navigator, placing us in the top 10 percent of all U.S. charities for adhering to good governance, fiscal responsibility and other best practices. We have seen the Young Professionals expand dramatically and the Guild celebrate its 50th anniversary as our oldest and a most valued volunteer auxiliary.

But no matter what we call ourselves – YP-ers or Guilders, Affiliates or National Office, UYEP or BEEP, together we are one Urban League…one unit, one core, one direction in concert for the same goals. All other labels aside, we are Urban Leaguers and together, this is our movement. One mission. One movement.

It is because of our efforts together that we have become the nation’s leading nonprofit economic first responder during the Great Recession.

Just this past May, we launched our Jobs Rebuild America initiative – the biggest economic rescue mission in our organization’s history – 100 million dollars and 50 cities over five years through what we call a “tripod” partnership between government, business, and non-profit. In the last 12 months, through the securing of new competitive grants, we have developed a stronger partnership with the Department of Labor under the Obama administration. Jobs Rebuild America is emblematic of our determination to reassert the power of the Urban League’s historic commitment to partnership and collaboration to advance economic empowerment and community development.

We know that the jobs crisis we have been experiencing, especially in our communities, is too big for any one entity alone to solve. That is why we are building more partnerships with corporations, other non-profits, and government at all levels. Members of Congress like Kirsten Gillibrand, Marcia Fudge, and Philadelphia’s own Chaka Fattah have championed legislation that would expand Jobs Rebuild America. It’s going to take all of us – working together – to jump-start our struggling economy and put America back to work. We’re doing our part and we want to do more. We intend to do more. We will do more.

When we created the Legislative Policy Conference 10 years ago, it was because I knew that if we were out of sight in Washington, we’d be out of mind. Ten years later, we have become a force again. We have reclaimed our voice on Capitol Hill. Together, we have gone to the White House, met with members of Congress and the Cabinet, and given voice to the issues of those who have been locked out and left out.

Together, we have strengthened ourselves as guardians of the hard-fought progress of a generation that understood, what Lincoln University’s Langston Hughes meant when he said, “Let America be America again…let my land be a land where liberty is crowned…opportunity is real…and life is free…equality is the air we breathe.”

So, when I say “together,” to whom am I referring? All of you who have stood by us, beside us, and locked arm-in-arm with us. We have made a difference.

So, I say thank you to our Chair of the National Urban League Board, John Hofmeister and our other Board members whose support, counsel and passion for the Urban League Movement are simply invaluable. To my National Urban League colleagues at 120 Wall Street…your dedication and tireless work are the engine that keep us going. None of what we have accomplished over the last 10 years could have happened without you there every day, every night, every time are you called upon to serve this movement. I must also recognize the Affiliate Movement – our heart, soul and muscle. It is through your efforts that we are able to make an indelible mark on communities in need across this nation. I’ve been to Toledo, Tallahassee and Tacoma…Sacramento, San Diego and Seattle…Dallas, Denver and Detroit…Atlanta and Austin…Pittsburgh and Philadelphia…and many more. And everywhere I turn, we are always there – together. To all of our supporters, partners, volunteers and those who believe in the power of what we do to create the change that we want to see, I am deeply humbled, strengthened and blessed by the friendships, the relationships and the opportunity to serve. Because in the end, that is what we do – we serve our movement, our people, our communities and our nation.

But unfortunately, “progress” isn’t where this chapter of our history ends – at least not today.

In less than 30 days, we’ve seen the United States Supreme Court gut and disable a core provision of the Voting Rights Act that improved our democracy and was one of the crowning achievements of a civil rights generation whose sacrifices – of both life and limb – propelled us to more progress in the past 50 years than we had experienced since our nation’s inception.

In less than 30 days, we’ve seen a decision in Florida in the killing of a young unarmed teenager – one of our sons – once again bring to light the inequities in America’s criminal justice system.

These events have sparked the flame of the 21st Century Civil Rights Movement. However, these events are not isolated – they join a growing list of old challenges.

Attempts of voter suppression. (SLIDES)

Continued under-employment and over-incarceration of young black men. (SLIDES)

Double-digit unemployment as the new norm in Black America. (SLIDES)

The ever-growing racial wealth divide. (SLIDES)

When I sat down to prepare these remarks and I started thinking about what I would say, I had no idea that the nation would be riveted and communities challenged in the way they have been in the past month. But the challenge before us now is to create a new “Civil Rights Movement for Economic Empowerment and Justice.” If 1963 was about Jobs and Freedom – two, zero, one, three is about economic empowerment and justice…a continuation movement standing on the shoulders of progress in which a new generation of Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, Jews, Gentiles, Protestants, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims – people from all walks of life, dispositions and orientations coalesce around working together to ensure that the promise of life, liberty and economic opportunity becomes real for this generation. We started it 50 years ago, and it’s time to finish our business.

Now, let me be clear. I do not naively believe that this happens overnight. But when we are all committed to the kind of progress that can advance our nation and our democracy toward the “land of equal opportunity” that we can be, our shared vision can certainly outweigh our superficial differences.

But there are extreme forces – not from Main Street or the mainstream for that matter – that seek to turn back the clock on 50 years of progress. A small group of people with very loud voices and deep pockets are putting the rights of gun owners over the safety of our streets and the lives of our children. Those same people criticize our First Amendment right to peacefully assemble to express our grievances, yet favor those senseless Stand Your Ground laws that make our streets less safe, perpetuate ongoing conviction and incarceration disparities and lead to tragedies like the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

I was saddened as most of you when the verdict was announced. I’ve said it before, and I will repeat it here – with the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death has become a travesty and miscarriage of justice. We must accept the jury’s decision under the due process of our legal system. But we have made it clear that this is far from over.

On behalf of the National Urban League and Urban League Movement, many of us have joined the leaders of the NAACP, National Action Network, the Black Women’s Roundtable, La Raza, and others in calling on and commending the Department of Justice for pursuing a federal criminal civil rights investigation in an effort to determine whether any federal laws were violated by George Zimmerman in connection with the death of Trayvon Martin. Stand Your Ground laws – and those similar to them – must be reviewed and rejected.

Now, for those who look at us and wrongly assert that we are not angered, hurt and upset by Black on Black violence. Let me be clear about that too. I am outraged.

I am outraged when Black teens kill Black teens or when gangbangers take the lives of another gangbanger and all too often, innocent bystanders. I am outraged at the violence that has taken far too many of our nameless, faceless and now forgotten young people…whether in Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans or any other city.

I am outraged by underachievement and low test scores…by parents that won’t live up to their responsibilities.

So, for anyone who says we have no concern about what’s happening in our communities every day, they are not in our churches to hear our prayers. They are not in our community meetings to hear our conversations and see us working toward solutions. They are not in our kitchens to feel the anguish and the pain when yet another one of our loved ones is senselessly taken from us. They are not part of this organization or others that work on a daily basis to impact the legislation that perpetuates inequality, or to develop the programs that ensure our children are ready for college and careers, or to work with those whom society has flippantly discarded and denied a second chance. Quite simply, they are not there. However, we invite them along this journey with us should they ever choose to trade in uninformed criticism for constructive action.

Tomorrow will be a better day. But it will require even more force from within our own communities. We must rise to the occasion – now. We cannot be content in the comfort of our nice homes…with our degrees hanging on the wall. We cannot look back at the challenges of 1963 and say that it is an era past. We must remember the millions who have been locked out and left out. This is the challenge of this generation – to carry forward the new civil rights charge of “Economic Empowerment and Justice” – for all.

So, when we talk about the new Civil Rights Movement, it’s time to say that the Urban League must lead the way and be there – in full force. And my appeal is for leaders and champions. If the desire for life, liberty, justice and equal opportunity is in your soul - whether you are a mother, father, elected official, business executive, or student…whether you live in a red or blue state or simply believe in the red, white and blue of this nation – you, too, cannot ignore the call.

Through the last 103 years, the last 50 years, the last 10 years – this is how far we’ve come together and this is the work that remains before us [GESTURE TO YOUTH ON STAGE]…to ensure that their future is brighter than our collective past.

The Urban League must lead this new Civil Rights Movement.

Join us in Washington DC next month as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with the highest honor possible – by continuing its work and ushering in the change necessary for ongoing progress. Join us at our Drum Majors for Justice Summit on August 23 where we will chart the course of forward efforts and the Civil Rights Continuation March on August 24 where multitudes will gather in the same spirit of 50 years ago. Join us on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to participate in our conversations, our activities, our work, our impact. The time to act is now. Urban Leaguers, we need you there.

Urban League Affiliate Leadership? Can we count on you? Join us.

National Urban League Board Members? Can we count on you? Join us.

Young Professionals and Guilders? Can we count on you? Join us.

Friends and supporters of the Urban League from coast to coast? Can we count on you? Join us.

As we embark on this new journey, we cannot be stopped. We will not be stopped. We must press on.

We cannot be stopped. We will not be stopped. We must press on.

We cannot be stopped. We will not be stopped. And together – in the Civil Rights Movement for Economic Empowerment and Justice,” we know – Aint No Stoppin’ Us Now.

God bless you!

[CUE MUSIC] – McFadden and Whitehead, “Aint No Stoppin Us Now” (FULL VOLUME)