PITTSBURGH – Celebrating political achievements, business success, and cultural excellence, 3,000 National Urban League (NUL) convention delegates gathered here July 26-30. Thousands of local residents submitted resumes at a job fair, attended conference sessions, received a free check-up at the health fair or enjoyed one of the musical events at the conference focused on “The Black Family: Building on Its Resilience.”

The conference was also the site of a presidential candidates’ forum and at least two demonstrations.

Newly-inaugurated League President Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans, reached out to the Greater Western Pennsylvania community for unity to confront “America’s paradox of progress … the equality gap in this nation.” Morial called on delegates to build “a movement of action … to close the equality gap … to defeat a new villain, James Crow Esquire.”

“Why are our jailhouses in better physical condition than our schoolhouses?” asked Morial pointedly, citing the fact that one out of seven Black males age 25-29 is in jail. He went on, “We must ask this nation to stop building fancy prisons and redirect these resources to building fancy schools with computers, playgrounds, libraries and with everything our children need to compete and win in the challenging global marketplace of the 21st century.”

African American unemployment has skyrocketed to 11.8 percent, double that of whites. Morial said, “We die faster, live sicker and are less likely to afford the high cost of health care.”

Morial announced several NUL initiatives, including a national summit on education, the establishment of a commission on rebuilding the nation’s cities and re-investing in urban areas, and a national legislative conference in the spring of 2004. He also called on delegates to register voters. Without endorsing a specific program, NUL pledged to be at the table of health care reform in the U.S. to promote access for African Americans.

Politics took center stage on the conference’s third day, when President Bush addressed the NUL delegates. Just three weeks earlier, Bush boycotted the NAACP convention.

“This is a photo-op,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told the World. “Bush wants to get his picture taken with Black folks, but in three years, he has refused to meet with the Black Caucus.”

Morial asked delegates to stand for the U.S. president and the cameras rolled. Delegates were coolly polite. John Bugg, vice president of the Baltimore Urban League, gave Bush a grade of ‘C.’ “He addressed a lot of issues that we had really come to listen to, but it wasn’t anything we hadn’t heard before,” Bugg said.

Fifteen hundred people were present for Bush’s speech, including convention vendors and job fair corporate representatives, less than half the crowd that attended Morial’s keynote.

Outside the conference, Pittsburghers marched and rallied against the continuing occupation of Iraq and against police brutality.

Robin Ponton, 13, nearly hidden by a hand-made sign demanding: “President Bush bring my daddy back home alive!” was one of 200 Steel City protesters greeting Bush’s arrival. Robin, who is African American, is the daughter of Staff Sgt. Charles Pollard who is in Iraq. Robin’s mother, Deshauna, said, “It’s sad whenever we are reading letters from (Charles) and they sound like they are the last letter he’ll ever write. We want him to come home.”

Cathy Troiani of rural Zelienopole joined the Ponton family on the picket line. Her husband is Staff Sgt. Phillip Troiani, also in Iraq. “My husband wants to come home. I support my husband. I don’t support the war. I don’t support the president. It’s gotten more dangerous since the president declared victory,” she told the local press.

Earlier in the week, Citizens Against Police Brutality marched to the convention center, asking delegates to support their call to Allegheny County District Attorney Steven Zapalla to issue an indictment against 13 Mount Oliver Borough police for the death of Charles Angus Dixon, who died in custody last December.

In the presidential candidates’ forum on July 28, seven of nine Democratic Party candidates for president addressed the conference. Democrats focused their heat on Bush and not each other, hammering on the issues of affirmative action; unemployment; the war with Iraq; racial profiling; unfunded mandates in education and health care; poverty; and deepening income inequality.

Only Democratic Senators Kerry and Graham did not attend the NUL forum.

Founded in 1910 to provide social services to Black workers leaving the South, the NUL is one of the nation’s oldest civil rights groups. Its leadership has included corporate executives from its inception. Michael Critelli, CEO of Pitney Bowes Inc., is the NUL’s chairman. The corporate relationship has produced tensions. In the 1920s, for example, Pittsburgh Urban League president John Clark was fired from his position and forced to leave town by the owners of the steel mills after urging Black steelworkers to join the union.

The author can be reached at dwinebr696@aol.com

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