By Marc H. Morial
“We have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies…only permanent interests.” –Former Congressman William L. Clay, Sr.
In a sign of the ongoing strength of the civil rights community and the Urban League Movement, more than 13,000 people joined us in Cincinnati during our 2014 National Urban League Conference for four power-packed days of diversity and dialogue about where we have been and where we are heading in our search for solutions to the pressing problems facing urban America.
We also celebrated the 15th anniversary of the National Urban League Young Professionals, the 25th anniversary of our Youth Leadership Summit and the 10th anniversary of our Women of Power awards. Over the past 15 years, the Young Professionals have changed the trajectory of the Urban League Movement – producing strong, effective CEOs who are infusing a new energy and passionate leadership into our affiliates across the county.
This year’s Youth Leadership Summit was held at Cincinnati’s Xavier University where 400 14-18 year-olds were exposed to the college experience and the important skills they will need for success in college, work and life. As a part of the National Urban League’s investment in STEM, we teamed up with GE Aviation in a unique experience day for Youth Leadership Summit participants, titled STEM Rising: Uplifting STEM Learning through Aviation, where they had an opportunity to visit the GE Aviation campus and learn about aviation industry technologies and innovations, as well as developing their leadership and teamwork skills.
A highlight of the conference was Vice President Joe Biden’s keynote address during which he noted the National Urban League’s role in advancing civil rights and the many economic and social gains for African Americans since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The vice president also touted the Obama administration’s focus on job creation and infrastructure spending, quoting a National Urban League finding that “Every $1 billion in investment creates 30,000 jobs, 14 percent of which go to African-Americans.”
The vice president echoed the National Urban League’s opposition to recent attacks on voting rights, pointing out that, “This year alone, there were 83 initiatives in 29 states to limit access to the ballot box, in the name of preventing corruption where no corruption was found, in the name of preventing widespread fraud where none was occurring.” He added, we should call it what it is – “an attempt to repress minority voting masquerading as an attempt to end corruption.”
In addition to the vice president’s views, as a non-partisan organization, the National Urban League has always welcomed ideas and dialogue from across the entire political spectrum, and this year’s conference attracted a number of notable voices who were eager to share their ideas and reach out to the African American community.
U.S. Conference of Mayors President and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson addressed conference attendees, noting that “Mayors don’t have time to deal with the partisan bickering that goes back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. We’re pragmatic, practical and problem-solvers, and we are with you in the trenches. We are your allies in the movement.”
During a session that immediately preceded the vice president, seven mayors – Akron, Ohio Mayor Don Plusquellic; Columbia, S.C. Mayor Stephen Benjamin; Columbus, Ohio Mayor Michael Coleman; Denver Mayor Michael Hancock; Gary, Ind. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson; Jacksonville, Fla. Mayor Alvin Brown; and Memphis Mayor AC Wharton, Jr. – participated on a panel that focused on strategies for addressing underemployment, including education and training, transportation, small business development, technology and innovation, and healthcare.
The following day, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky made a strong argument for criminal justice reform, announcing legislation that eliminates any disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, and revealing that he and Senator Cory Booker (D.N.J.) have teamed up on ideas to overhaul the criminal justice system, including legislation that expunges non-violent felonies from a person’s record.
While some of these ideas hold merit, there are many others that diverge from the interests of the Urban League Movement, including opposition to a raise in the minimum wage and any support of voter ID laws. However, as I’ve previously stated, history has shown us a consistent truth – that it is only by talking, listening and reasoning together that we build trust, end stalemates and transform conflicts into solutions. We don’t have to adopt every view that is presented to us, but we should never devolve to a place where we stop listening to – or worse – respecting each other.
Our 2014 conference was a resounding success – thanks in large part to the support of our 94 affiliates in more than 300 communities across the nation, the people of Cincinnati who welcomed us with open arms and the dedicated and committed companies who provided their support, including our title sponsors, P&G, Toyota, and Western & Southern. Many lessons were gained during the course of our four days together, but perhaps the most important was the ongoing need for coalition-building to address the nation’s many challenges.
In order to build bridges to jobs and justice, we must first have meaningful dialogue that leads to action. As former Congressional Black Caucus member William Clay, Sr. famously said, “We have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies…just permanent interests.” I hope our 2014 Conference was an example of the type of respectful and insightful exchange necessary to defend the permanent interests of urban America and lead to lasting change.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.