In 2009, a visionary leader stepped forth with a message of hope onto the world stage of history. As the nation was on the brink of dissolution and despair, millions of Americans and freedom-loving people all over the world witnessed the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama. This monumental moment breathed new life into our nation as it sent the forces of inequality, injustice, and division on the run. Or did it?
“Despite this historic achievement, negative forces still exist and the work of the National Urban League is more relevant today than ever before.” states Marc H. Morial, President & CEO, National Urban League. “African-Americans find themselves in conditions that continue to worsen in areas such as economics, education and health and, after 100 years of dedicated service, the National Urban League remains a significant force in improving the lives of over 2 million individuals each year.”
It was on the same premise of hope that the National Urban League was established as the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes on September 29, 1910 in New York City by visionaries Mrs. Ruth Standish Baldwin and Dr. George Edmund Haynes.
The National Urban League grew out of a spontaneous grassroots movement for freedom and opportunity that came to be called the Black Migrations. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared its approval of segregation in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the brutal system of economic, social and political oppression the White South quickly adopted rapidly transformed what had been a trickle of African Americans northward into a flood.
Those newcomers to the North soon discovered they had not escaped racial discrimination. Excluded from all but menial jobs in the larger society, victimized by poor housing and education, and inexperienced in the ways of urban living, many lived in terrible social and economic conditions. But to capitalize on that opportunity, to successfully adapt to urban life and to reduce the pervasive discrimination they faced, they would need help. That was the reason the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes was established.
Mrs. Baldwin, the widow of a railroad magnate and a member of one of America’s oldest families, had a remarkable social conscience and was a stalwart champion of the poor and disadvantaged. Dr. Haynes, a graduate of Fisk University, Yale University, and Columbia University (he was the first African-American to receive a doctorate from that institution), felt a compelling need to use his training as a social worker to serve his people.
A year later, the Committee merged with the Committee for the Improvement of Industrial Conditions Among Negroes in New York (founded in New York in 1906), and the National League for the Protection of Colored Women (founded in 1905) to form the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes. In 1920, the name was later shortened to the National Urban League.
The interracial character of the League’s board was set from its first days. Professor Edwin R. A. Seligman of Columbia University, one of the leaders in progressive social service activities in New York City, served as chairman from 1911 to 1913. Mrs. Baldwin took the post until 1915.
The fledgling organization counseled black migrants from the South, helped train black social workers, and worked in various other ways to bring educational and employment opportunities to blacks. Its research into the problems blacks faced in employment opportunities, recreation, housing, health and sanitation, and education spurred the League’s quick growth. By the end of World War I the organization had 81 staff members working in 30 cities.
In 1918, Dr. Haynes was succeeded by Eugene Kinckle Jones who would direct the agency until his retirement in 1941. Under his direction, the League significantly expanded its multifaceted campaign to crack the barriers to black employment, spurred first by the boom years of the 1920s, and then, by the desperate years of the Great Depression. Efforts at reasoned persuasion were buttressed by boycotts against firms that refused to employ blacks, pressures on schools to expand vocational opportunities for young people, constant prodding of Washington officials to include blacks in New Deal recovery programs and a drive to get blacks into previously segregated labor unions.
As World War II loomed, Lester Granger, a seasoned League veteran and crusading newspaper columnist, was appointed Granger’s successor.
Outspoken in his commitment to advancing opportunity for African Americans, Granger pushed tirelessly to integrate the racist trade unions, and led the League’s effort to support A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement to fight discrimination in defense work and in the armed services. Under Granger, the League, through its own Industrial Relations Laboratory, had notable success in cracking the color bar in numerous defense plants. The nation’s demand for civilian labor during the war also helped the organization press ahead with greater urgency its programs to train black youths for meaningful blue-collar employment. After the war those efforts expanded to persuading Fortune 500 companies to hold career conferences on the campuses of Negro Colleges and place blacks in upper-echelon jobs.
Of equal importance to the League’s own future sources of support, Granger avidly supported the organization of its volunteer auxiliary, the National Urban League Guild, which, under the leadership of Mollie Moon, became an important national force in its own right.
The explosion of the civil rights movement provoked a change for the League, one personified by its new leader, Whitney M. Young, Jr., who became executive director in 1961. A social worker like his predecessors, he substantially expanded the League’s fund-raising ability-and, most critically, made the League a full partner in the civil rights movement. Indeed, although the League’s tax-exempt status barred it from protest activities, it hosted at its New York headquarters the planning meetings of A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders for the 1963 March on Washington. Young was also a forceful advocate for greater government and private-sector efforts to eradicate poverty. His call for a domestic Marshall Plan, a ten-point program designed to close the gap between the huge social and economic gap between black and white Americans, significantly influenced the discussion of the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty legislation.
Young’s tragic death in 1971 in a drowning incident off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria brought another change in leadership. Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., formerly Executive Director of the United Negro College Fund, took over as the League’s fifth Executive Director in 1972 (the title of the office was changed to President in 1977).
For the next decade, until his resignation in December 1981, Jordan skillfully guided the League to new heights of achievement. He oversaw a major expansion of its social-service efforts, as the League became a significant conduit for the federal government to establish programs and deliver services to aid urban communities, and brokered fresh initiatives in such League programs as housing, health, education and minority business development. Jordan also instituted a citizenship education program that helped increase the black vote and brought new programs to such areas as energy, the environment, and non-traditional jobs for women of color-and he developed The State of Black America report.
In 1982, John E. Jacob, a former chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C. and San Diego affiliates who had served as Executive Vice President, took the reins of leadership, solidifying the League’s internal structure and expanding its outreach even further.
Jacob established the Permanent Development Fund in order to increase the organization’s financial stamina. In honor of Whitney Young, he established several programs to aid the development of those who work for and with the League: The Whitney M. Young, Jr. Training Center, to provide training and leadership development opportunities for both staff and volunteers; the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Race Relations Program, which recognizes affiliates doing exemplary work in race relations; and the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Commemoration Ceremony, which honors and pays tribute to long term staff and volunteers who have made extraordinary contributions to the Urban League Movement.
Jacob established the League’s NULITES youth-development program and spurred the League to put new emphasis on programs to reduce teenage pregnancy, help single female heads of households, combat crime in black communities, and increase voter registration.
Hugh B. Price, appointed to the League’s top office in July 1994, took over the reins at a critical moment for the League, for Black America, and for the nation as a whole. In the early 90’s, the fierce market-driven dynamic of “globalization,” was sweeping the world, fundamentally altering the economic relations among and within countries and reshaping the link between the nation’s citizenry and its economy, fostering enormous uncertainty among individuals and tensions among ethnic and cultural groups.
This economic change and the efforts of some to rollback the gains African Americans fashioned since the 1960s, made the League’s efforts all the more necessary. Price, a lawyer with extensive experience in community development and public policy issues, intensified the organization’s work in three broad areas: in education and youth development, individual and community-wide economic empowerment, affirmative action and the promotion of inclusion as a critical foundation for securing America’s future as a multi-ethnic democracy.
Among Prices most notable achievements was establishing the League’s Institute of Opportunity and Equality in Washington, DC, which conducted a research and public policy analysis of urban issues and the Campaign for African American Achievement, a community mobilization and advocacy initiative created to raise awareness and promote the importance of achievement through the formation of the National Achievers Society, Doing the Right Thing recognition in local communities and the Nation Urban League’s Scholarship Program.
On May 15th, 2003 the board of Trustees of the National Urban League voted overwhelmingly to appoint former New Orleans Mayor Marc H. Morial as the league’s eighth President and Chief Executive Officer. As New Orleans Chief Executive, he was one of the most popular and effective Mayors in the city’s history, leaving office with 70% approval rating. After being elected as one of the youngest Mayors in the city’s history, crime plummeted by 60% a corrupt Police Department was reformed, new programs for youth were started, and stagnant economy was reignited.
Since his appointment to the National Urban League, Morial has worked to reenergize the movement’s diverse constituencies by building on the strengths of the NUL’s 100 year old legacy and increasing the organization’s profile both locally and nationally.
In his first year, Morial worked to streamline the organizations’ headquarters, secured over $10 million dollars in new funding to support affiliate programs, created the first Legislative Policy Conference “NUL on the Hill”, revamped the State of Black America report, created profitability for the annual conference, and secured a $127.5 million equity fund for the minority businesses through the new markets tax credit program. He introduced and developed a stronger strategic direction of the organization with a “five point empowerment agenda” that focuses on closing the equality gaps which exist for African Americans and other emerging ethnic communities in education, economic empowerment, health and quality of life, civic engagement, and civil rights and racial justice.
As the National Urban League prepares for its Centennial celebration in 2010, this historical organization remains committed to the fundamental principles upon which it was founded. Since its inception in 1910, the National Urban League and its 100 local affiliates have been at the forefront of the civil-rights movement, and continue that leadership and advocacy role today.
Today, with key programs focused on empowering African-Americans to achieve equality in all aspects of American life, the National Urban League builds the bridges that will close the equality gap for all people while helping to create and deliver the social services that have come to define its place in history.
The National Urban League’s Centennial celebration is a time to reflect on the rich history and legacy of this historical organization. It is also a time to look forward to the National Urban League as a transformative movement that will continue to serve the emerging and future needs of urban America.
For more information about the National Urban League and its centennial activities visit www.nul.org or call 212-558-5300.