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The National Urban League: An Overview

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Along with organizations such as the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Urban League (NUL) has played a pivotal role in advocating for the civil rights of people of color. Founded in 1910 by Ruth Standish Baldwin and George Edmund Haynes, the league fights for racial progress by providing college scholarships and job training and striving to increase homeownership and entrepreneurship in minority communities. Want to know more about the National Urban League? Take a look below at the overview of the group’s history and how it’s advanced over the years.

How the League Was Born

Originally named the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, the National Urban League has roots in two organizations that merged: the Committee for the Improvement of Industrial Conditions Among Negroes in New York and the National League for the Protection of Colored Women. Need for an urban league for blacks became necessary due to the scores of African Americans who left the rural South to pursue employment opportunities in Northern cities. Upon their arrival in the North, many blacks encountered discrimination barriers that excluded them from upward mobility. The NUL not only aimed to dismantle these barriers but made economic empowerment of blacks a major part of its mission.

In 1920, the organization assumed the name the National Urban League. Under its new moniker, the league didn’t hesitate to get involved in civil rights matters, such as challenging racial discrimination in the defense sector. Although it had many white members and was considered to be politically moderate, the league played a crucial part in the Civil Rights Movement. It fundraised enough to host strategy meetings for the March on Washington.

The NUL’s Most Influential Leaders

Nine presidents have headed the National Urban League during its 99-year history. They are: George Haynes, Eugene Jones, Lester Granger, Whitney Young, Vernon Jordan, John Jacob, Hugh Price, Milton Little and Marc Morial, NUL’s current head.

Of these men, arguably Young and Vernon Jordan are most notable. Young headed the NUL from 1961 to 1971. During those years, he reportedly expanded its annual budget from $325,000 to $6.1 million. He also fought for cities to receive federal assistance to combat the social ills facing black America, a strategy President Johnson included in his War on Poverty platform. Moreover, Young pressured corporations such as Ford to hire more African Americans and established programs for black community leaders and black youth to tackle problems such as soaring high school dropout rates.

In 1969, President Johnson made Young a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work. Just two years later, Young drowned in Nigeria. He was 49.

After Young’s death, attorney Vernon Jordan began his tenure as the NUL’s executive director in 1971. While heading the urban league, Jordan developed a citizenship education program that helped increase black voter turnout, not to mention new programs that addressed issues such as energy, the environment and non-traditional jobs for women of color. Perhaps Jordan’s crowning accomplishment as NUL president was creating the State of Black America report, which has become the leading guide about black progress in the U.S.

Jordan’s presidency hit a grim note in 1980. Then, a white supremacist allegedly shot Jordan in Indiana after seeing him with a white woman. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time someone had plotted to kill the head of the urban league. Herman B. Furguson and Arthur Harris were convicted of conspiring to murder Whitney Young in 1968.

After he was shot, Jordan sustained severe injuries and resigned from the urban league in 1981. Following his departure, Jordan became a household name in America when he served on former President Clinton’s transition team in 1992 and 1993. Jordan now serves on the boards of numerous corporations.

An Organization Known for Its Words

The National Urban League has used literature to garner support for its causes since 1923. That year, the league launched scholarly publication, the Opportunity Journal. Early on, the journal served to capture the thoughts and opinions of artists, scholars, activists, historians and opinion makers. Now, readers can find coverage of pressing civil rights issues within its pages.

The NUL’s newest publication is Urban Influence Magazine, launched in 2004. The periodical paints a portrait of the Urban League Movement by spotlighting emerging young professionals and activists in influential industries. There’s also a “how to” component. Readers are shown how to start and expand businesses, successfully network and other ways to become people of influence.

Each year, the urban league releases its highly anticipated State of Black America. The report examines the challenges African Americans face today, be they foreclosures, inadequate health care or educational barriers. It also highlights the concerns of scholars, analysts and ordinary citizens and includes recommendations for how barriers can be addressed.

Those invested in the urban league’s message can find out what’s on Marc Morial’s mind each week by reading his syndicated column “To Be Equal.” Distributed to more than 400 newspapers and websites nationwide, the weekly column was the brainchild of Whitney Young. It used to be called “The Voice of Black America.” In its latest incarnation, the column addresses issues affecting African Americans and Americans as a whole.

Wrapping Up

The National Urban League has come a long way since 1910. It now has more than 100 local affiliates in 36 states and Washington D.C. Under the leadership of Morial, the league has secured more than $10 million dollars in new funding to support affiliate programs and a $127 million equity fund for minority businesses. Due to such advances, the NUL appears to be in prime position to help African Americans reach new heights.

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