Civil rights struggle not over, Urban League activists say

CHICAGO – Thousands of African American activists, business leaders, elected and appointed officials, youth and civil rights advocates are convened here during the National Urban League’s (NUL) conference to discuss fighting for personal and community empowerment during tough economic times.

During his State of the Urban League keynote address, Marc Morial, the organization’s president and CEO, said there is much to celebrate in the African American community given the historic election of President Barack Obama. Speaking at the Apostolic Church of God here on the opening night, Morial reminded those in attendance, despite some progress, the struggle for civil rights is far from over.

“As long as Black kids are denied the right to swim in a pool in Philadelphia; or our Equality Index continues to show big disparities in jobs, health care, housing and education that break down along the color line; as long as a Supreme Court nominee is vilified because of her gender or ethnicity; as long as a Harvard Professor is arrested in his own house, the fight for civil rights is not over,” said Morial. “But, even while we continue to fight these persistent battles of the 20th century, we must speak for every American – Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American – who shares our vision of equality and justice for all.”

“The Path to Power” was the main theme of the conference, featuring important topics such as: building leadership, tips on preventing foreclosure, making smart business investments, taking advantage of the new “green” economy, taking steps to be active in the 2010 Census, strengthening the American workforce and saving at-risk children from unwanted community violence.

Established in 1910, the NUL is the nation’s oldest and largest community-based movement devoted to empowering African Americans as influential leaders in U.S. society, particularly in the economic and social mainstream. The group is based in New York City and spearheads the non-partisan efforts of over 100 local affiliates nationwide providing direct services to more than a million people through programs, advocacy and research. The Urban League looks to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2010.

One of the highlights at this year’s conference was speaker Vice-President Joe Biden who said the Urban League’s historic leadership and advocacy for economic and social justice is needed now, more than ever.

Above all, Biden addressed the economic crisis and the Obama administration’s efforts in confronting the country’s most pressing challenges including the progress of the economic recovery act.

“A lot of people are having a very hard time hanging on – white, Black, Hispanic, Asian – people who have found themselves struggling after an economic free fall,” said Biden. Unemployment continues to be unacceptably high and the harsh reality is that it’s the African American community that continues to be one of the hardest hit, he said.

Due to the nature of the world economy the rate of unemployment lacks well behind the success of economic growth and will continue to do so for some time, said Biden.

“Something big and significant had to be done,” noted Biden, referring to Obama’s economic recovery plan.

Biden questioned those, many in the Republican Party and far-right conservative base, who feel Obama’s plan to fix the economic crisis is spending too much or only increases the role of the federal government in American life.

“Some would like us to believe we are trying to do too much,” said Biden. “I argue how can we do any less?”

The economic recovery act had a purpose and was designed to help restore our economic health in three areas, “relief, recovery and reinvestment,” said Biden. “Too many distressed people were falling through the cracks and we had to act immediately,” he said.

Biden noted many areas where the economic stimulus package, implemented by the Obama administration earlier this year, has benefited working families across the country.

For example, Biden said: $ 4 billion went to expanding unemployment benefits; $6 billion went to lowering the costs of health insurance to those who recently lost their jobs; $20 billion went to expanding food stamps, helping to feed 30 million nationwide; $100 billion went toward education; $80 billion went toward states in order to preserve Medicaid services to $20 million people; and health care was extended to 11 million more children under the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“We had to build a foundation for a new economy to keep families from falling into a deep black hole,” said Biden. In the last two major financial expansions too many middle class and low-income communities did not get their fair share, he added.

Society made a deal in the 20th century that those who increase the production are entitled to a piece of the wealth, said Biden. “But, that didn’t happen,” he said.

The health care system, energy efficiency and education all needed radical changes and we are laying the foundation to allow people a part of the action, said Biden.

Biden stressed the importance of a new “green” economy and new jobs that support energy efficiency and home weatherization projects. The Obama administration hopes to train 500,000 people and put them back to work in these areas, he said. “We want to make jobs that cannot be deported,” said Biden.

Such efforts will need the help of all Americans, said Biden, especially those residing in urban areas. “This is one of the most friendliest urban administrations in a long time and we cannot succeed if our urban areas do not,” said Biden.

“We have to put people back to work and let them know it’s going to be okay,” added Biden. People out of work have the hardest job and are liable to lose their dignity in the process, said Biden.

“I am absolutely positively certain that we will come out of this recession stronger,” he said. Despite inheriting the largest economic recession since the Great Depression, we’re beginning to move in the right direction, he said. The Obama administration is committed to a fair and equal footing for working people, so that the economy works for all Americans and that everybody has a shot, he said.

Leslie Drish, director of education with the Chicago Urban League chapter told the World Biden’s words were encouraging and optimistic. Drish said she appreciated his reassuring remarks but understands much still needs to be done, especially addressing the unending issue of rising unemployment within the Black community.

“People just don’t have the adequate information or resources about the opportunities presented by the Vice-President,” said Drish. Our mission at the Urban League is ensuring that people know these opportunities exist and are available, she said.

Drish works with young African American students on the south side of Chicago and is constantly reminded about the economic disparities when it comes to daily life among urban youth.

Access to quality resources, better funding for public education, and the unacceptable dropout rate among inner-city youth are some of the major problems she sees. The overall academic achievement gap and helping college bound students with funding is a major issue, she said.

Lois Cooper is from Long Island, NY and works for a company called Adecco, which helps people find jobs, promotes career development and diversity in professional fields.

Cooper was at the conference with her daughter. She said she was impressed with the overall turnout at the event and hopes to learn stronger ways in helping people land good jobs in her area.

The conference has given her faith that when people from all walks of life come together and become collectively inspired – confronting the many challenges that lie ahead are much easier to overcome, she said.