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Reviving America’s Spirit of Optimism

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By Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

Last week I became the beneficiary of a great privilege and responsibility: I was appointed president and chief executive of the National Urban League.

Actually, I can say without hesitation that long before last week I was a beneficiary of the Urban League, too.

For its commitment since its founding ninety years ago to expanding opportunity for African Americans is part of the bedrock of progress which made it possible for me to aspire to, to compete for, and to serve for two years as a senator in the Louisiana state legislature, and then serve two four-year terms as the mayor of that great southern metropolis, New Orleans.

Of course, I wasn’t the first African-American to hold that position. My late father, Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial, was Mayor of New Orleans for two terms from 1977 to 1986.

Yes, thankfully, there were many factors during the decades of the twentieth century which helped make it possible for my father and I to hold such positions, and for my mother, Sybil Morial, an educator, to have been so involved in the broad civic life of our home city and state.

But there’s no question that I owe a great deal to the long, diligent work of the National Urban League in readying African Americans for full citizenship—and in readying White Majority America for the full participation of African Americans in our nation’s stewardship.

And there’s no question, either, that now the full participation of all Americans in our country’s civic life is more critical than ever.
The United States faces a crisis on several fronts that was unimaginable just a few short years ago.

This week we’ve had fresh, tragic evidence that the murderous intent of some to plunge the world into a whirlwind of violence has not abated, and thus, the global war against terrorism, and the anxiety and uncertainties that attend it, will continue.

We’ve also had fresh evidence that the economic downturn in this country is threatening to grow sharper and widen the gaps that exist in access to capital for business development, and in access to quality education, decent housing, and affordable health care, to name just a few pressing needs.

Even though the alarming statistics on the number of jobs the economy has lost, the number of Americans who are out of work and the number of Americans who are so frustrated they’ve stopped looking for work have been submerged by war news, those realities remain, sapping the economic and spiritual strength of the nation.

And we’ve also had fresh evidence recently that the struggle for equal opportunity for all Americans continues.

The University of Michigan affirmative action case now before the U.S. Supreme Court is a fundamental barometer of whether the nation will continue without interruption its just expansion of the boundaries of opportunity.

As Americans from all walks of life—from university students to Fortune 500 chief executives to retired top military brass—have said in unprecedented fashion recently, the nation cannot afford to try to halt the racial progress that’s been made.

To pretend that affirmative action has not been a vital cause of that progress is just that—pretense.

I sought to become head of the National Urban League for the same reasons I entered politics in Louisiana: Because I believe we can make life better for all Americans. I believe we must make life better for all Americans.

That belief hardly originated with me, or with my parents. Indeed, the original slogan the founders of the Urban League devised in 1910—“Not Alms, but Opportunity”—spoke volumes.

It declared that a hand up, not a hand-out was what African-American migrants then flooding the cities from the rural South needed in order to adapt to the ways of modern urban life and contribute their fair share to America’s greatness.

The founders of the National Urban League had the foresight, and the faith in their fellow human beings, to see that that was the route to progress. And they understood what the great scientist Albert Einstein once noted—that in every crisis there is opportunity. They were confident then that African Americans could overcome the profound barriers that held them from full participation in American life; they were determined that they would.

Now, as then, the National Urban League will be part of the mosaic of people and organizations that will improve the quality of life in the United States.

We are as confident as our predecessors were of America’s ability to overcome the multiple challenges that confront us today, and we fully intend to use our energies to help corral the expertise that exists within America and revive the characteristic American spirit of optimism to reinvigorate for the 21st century the national commitment to expanding opportunity.

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