As president of a regional affiliate of the National Urban League, I sometimes have to step back from daily business to reflect on the legacy of the organization and the courage, intelligence and creativity that lay the foundation that my staff and I stand upon. Black History Month is the perfect opportunity to share some moments and pearls of wisdom from the storied past of the National Urban League (NUL).
In the late nineteenth century, Ruth Standish Baldwin and Dr. George Edmund Haynes co-founded the Committee on Urban Conditions among Negroes, the first of three organizations that would merge to form the National Urban League. Ms. Baldwin, wife of the president of the Long Island Railroad, was White, but she worked tirelessly on behalf of African Americans, saying, “Let us work not as colored people nor as white people for the narrow benefit of any group alone, but together, as American citizens, for the common good of our common city, our common country.”
Another visionary leader of the National Urban League was Lester Granger, who helmed the organization from 1941 to 1961. He fought discrimination and segregation while promoting opportunity and organizing. In 1960, Martin Luther King Jr., addressed an Urban League audience with these words: “Under the dedicated leadership of Lester B. Granger, your purposes have always been noble and your work has always been creatively meaningful,” praising his “dedicated and magnificent leadership.”
Granger’s successor, Whitney M. Young Jr., was known as a quiet but effective leader, campaigning tirelessly for African-American achievement and stating, “The truth is that there is nothing noble in being superior to somebody else. The only real nobility is in being superior to your former self.” Under Young’s leadership, the League became a powerful force for desegregation and co-sponsored the historic 1963 March on Washington. The 43rd annual Greater Washington Urban League gala, which is named in his honor, takes place on March 13. (Ticket information.) This celebration of our beloved institution is always a memorable occasion.
Since the days of Whitney Young, the Urban League has gone from strength to strength. Vernon E. Jordan Jr., was president from 1972 to 1981, greatly expanded our social service programs and went on to become a cherished advisor to Bill Clinton and a respected thinker and influencer. John E. Jacob focused on youth development efforts and took bold, often controversial stances, for example, telling The New York Times, “America will become a second-rate power unless we undertake policies to insure that our neglected minority population gets the education, housing, health care and job skills they need to help America compete successfully in a global economy.” He served from 1982 to 1994. The next president, Hugh B. Price, a native Washingtonian, established the League’s Institute of Opportunity and Equality. I well remember Price’s galvanizing 1991 column, “The Mosaic and the Melting Pot,” in which he succinctly captured a dilemma we still confront today: “How can we expect millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of them minority, to embrace, much less treasure, Western history and values when they’re under economic siege?” Hugh also initiated the Campaign for African American Achievement, which mobilized thousands across the nation to celebrate young Black achievers. His tenure was 1994 to 2003. Marc H. Morial, the current leader of the National Urban League, was previously the young and dynamic mayor of New Orleans. Morial’s ambitious five-point “Empowerment Agenda” zeroes in on the critical issues of education, economic empowerment, health and quality of life, civic engagement, and civil rights and racial justice. Under his leadership, the spotlight has been on jobs and economic parity.
While I was not on the scene during the heyday of Dr. George Edmund, I have had the good fortunate to personally know Vernon Jordan, John Jacob, Hugh Price and Marc Morial, and I encourage students of all ages to dig deeper into our organization’s history, which offers a banquet of inspiration as we contemplate the challenges and opportunities ahead.
George H. Lambert Jr. is president and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.