We need all hands on deck to preserve US civil rights
There was a sense of urgency in the air during this year’s National Urban League annual conference. The pandemic, the ongoing murders of Black Americans post-George Floyd and a constant assault on democratic values, voting rights and reproductive freedom have put civil rights on notice.
Despite this, we have also made great strides. The recent swearing-in of Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman Supreme Court justice increased Black representation in leadership positions and a robust White House commitment to advance Black equity and opportunity gives us reason to believe that momentum is building.
It’s critical that we expand how we talk about our work. The National Urban League has been dedicated to racial justice for more than a century and as we look to the road ahead, the work to end racial inequities must also include restoring and advancing the rights of women and other marginalized groups.
The challenges we face are larger than any one locality or interest group. They are more than the public or private sectors can solve on their own. We must take a collaborative and intersectional approach if we’re to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice and equity.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly put it, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
Indeed, we must come together to drive away racist legacies and open the doors of opportunity to all Americans. We’ve seen how this model can work.
The legacy of Whitney M. Young Jr., who served as executive director of the Urban League in the early 1960s during a pivotal time for racial equity in the U.S., is an example. One of the things he was best known for was his ability to bridge ideas and connect people. Young brought together business leaders and Black activists and was known for breaking down barriers between different factions and driving meaningful progress.
There’s a lot we can learn from Young’s approach. By being able to reach across aisles regardless of people’s backgrounds, socioeconomic classes and titles, we can take Young’s lead and draw from our collective, inherent human dignity as the thing that binds us. It is only when we can see the humanity in one another regardless of who we are or what we believe that we will be able to push the needle toward a more equitable future.
Growing up in New Orleans, one of us saw the pernicious effects of a racially unequal city firsthand. That influence resonated years later, as the mayor of the city. It sparked a commitment to addressing those inequities and successful strides were made in reducing crime while reforming the police department, as well as helping to elect the first African American judge in Louisiana. Serving as mayor of a racially diverse city brought an intimate understanding of how it is only through collaboration that meaningful and substantive change can be created.
As a leader in the business sector, the other has seen firsthand how diverse entities coming together can drive meaningful, inclusive change. In New Orleans, Mastercard and members of the philanthropic and business communities came together to launch initiatives and tools that offer financial inclusion, access to emergency disbursements and incentives to drive economic growth, empower underbanked residents and provide better access to city services. Mastercard has been a longtime sponsor of the Urban League, most recently through a partnership with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth geared toward entrepreneurial and workforce development as part of the brand’s In Solidarity initiative to close the racial wealth and opportunity gap.
It is this combination of ambition and action, and of public and private sectors working together, that will move the needle on equity. If a man like Young during the heat of civil rights in the 60s and a city like New Orleans can do it, every person and locality across America can.
When the National Urban League opened its doors more than a century ago, America looked a bit different than it does today. There were more carriages than cars, women couldn’t vote, interracial marriage would remain illegal for decades longer and segregation was enshrined in the law. Six decades ago, when Dr. King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, our great nation was struggling to find its identity as a racially diverse democracy, one where the voices of Black leaders, as well as women, LGBTQ people and others were just starting to break through to mainstream visibility and advocacy. In the years since we have made tremendous progress, but we still have not realized an America that works for everyone.
The moment that’s before us is one that requires our full force and our shared commitment. It’s our time to build on Dr. King’s legacy with collaboration and stubborn persistence. We must harness the momentum and continue to push forward to make Dr. King’s dream a full-fledged lived reality.
That is not ever an easy thing to do. Nor does it always feel good. But it’s the necessary thing to do if we’re to have a future as the United States.
Marc H, Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League. Tim Murphy has served as chair of the board of the National Urban League since 2019 and is the chief administrative officer of Mastercard.