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“It’s Empowerment Time”

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For much of the past two weeks, staff members and friends of the National Urban League have gathered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the historic city at the juncture of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers, to undertake a searching discussion of the both the strengths of the African-American family and the challenges it faces.

We have heard from and conversed with a voluminous and varied set of scholars, corporate leaders, community activists, and political leaders from all levels of the American political structure.

We were welcomed by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy and the brilliant leader of our local affiliate, the Urban League of Pittsburgh, Esther L. Bush.

And as usual, we counted ourselves fortunate to have several members of the Congressional Black Caucus in attendance as speakers or visitors, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md; Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala.; and Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, D-Fla.

We were also pleased to be visited by both President George W. Bush and by seven of the politicians who are seeking the Democratic nomination next year to campaign against him.

They were:

Carol Moseley Braun, the former Senator from Illinois;

Howard Dean, the former Governor of Vermont;

Senator John Edwards, of North Carolina;

Rep. Richard Gephardt, of Missouri;

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, of Ohio;

Senator Joseph Lieberman, of Connecticut;

and the Reverend Al Sharpton.

In multiple ways, it was fitting that we gathered in Pittsburgh, where the Urban League had last held an annual conference in 1954, for Pittsburgh occupies a special place in the timeline of the struggle for equality in America.

In the 1800s, it was an important stop for the Underground Railroad. It’s also home to the fifth-oldest Urban League affiliate in the country, the Urban League of Pittsburgh having been organized in 1918. And in the 1960s Pittsburgh was an important departure point for the Mississippi Freedom Rides.

So, it is fitting that we went to Pittsburgh to mark a new departure point for the Urban League Movement.

Forty years ago this summer great men and women came together in a time of conflict and controversy to plan and carry out the historic 1963 March on Washington. They and those who gathered with them that day were champions of a fundamentally American idea—that all people are created equal, and imbued by the creator with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This is an idea not only embedded in our constitution and declaration of independence, but also engrained in our hearts and in the very DNA of our souls.
Forty years later, we can proudly celebrate the many successes of the civil rights movement.

But we can also not deny that forty years later America is paradox of progress. While the Civil Rights Movement defeated Jim Crow, and African Americans are making their mark in all fields of endeavor, there still exists an “equality gap” in this nation.

We must not tolerate these gaps any longer.
That’s why we at the National Urban League have come to Pittsburgh to pledge our commitment to a new movement.

If the 19th century needed a Freedom Movement to end Slavery, and the 20th century needed a Civil Rights Movement to achieve equal rights and social justice for African Americans, then we say this era needs an Empowerment Movement to close the equality gap in five critical areas: in education, economic matters, health and the quality of life, in issues of civic engagement, and in civil rights and racial justice.

The facts of the equality gap—discussed in the various essays of The State of Black America 2003 the Urban League published this month, and in even greater detail during the seminar-filled days of our conference—vividly demonstrates that, contrary to superficial appearances and divisive rhetoric, America still has much that needs to be done.

The empowerment movement is not a movement of hate and division but one in which people commit themselves to finding and implanting solutions.

And we at the National Urban League promise that we will be in the forefront of that movement.

Our agenda includes establishing several task forces—a National Commission on the Black Male, a Commission on Jobs and the Urban Economy, and a National African-American Wellness Initiative.

And next spring we will hold a legislative and policy conference in Washington, D.C. which will involve a series of meetings with members of the Bush Administration and members from both parties in Congress.

These are part of our effort to bring people together from across the ideological spectrum. We’re not, rest assured, simply going to talk and talk, or simply ask others to solve this or that problem. We will develop ideas and actions that lead to solutions.

Forty years ago a great generation of Americans led a movement that made America’s present possible.

The task for us, their beneficiaries, is to marshal the courage and conviction, the fortitude and the fight, the intelligence and the integrity they displayed to complete their work.

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