Marc Morial went to Washington, D.C., with a mission last week: To stop the “vigorous backlash” from the conservative right to repeal the progress realized by African Americans and other marginalized groups in the 20th century.
The National Urban League president and CEO carried this emphatic message to the civil rights organization’s members at its first in-person conference held since 2019 due to a virulent pandemic that sidelined such public events over the past two years. (The conference had a virtual component as well.)
The battleground issues, Morial asserted during an interview with BLACK ENTERPRISE, represented a “clear and present danger to civil rights and democracy,” ranging from voter suppression and women’s reproductive rights to Critical Race Theory and rising gun violence and driven by actions by state legislatures as well as the Supreme Court.
Moreover, Morial focused on what he calls the “fascist coup to overthrow the government” during the assault on Capitol Hill inspired by former President Trump and under congressional review during the recent Jan. 6 hearings.
Against this backdrop, Morial says the NUL structured this year’s conference to dissect such contentious areas, define rules of engagement and discuss strategies to combat the wave of measures to “bring down the curtain on this generation’s Reconstruction Era.”
Sessions focused on the status of social justice, Black wealth building, corporate board diversity, and digital equity, among others. Morial also galvanized attendees to participate in an event kick-off rally on civil rights, hate crimes, women’s rights, and economic justice at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Among the speakers were members of the Biden administration, including a special fireside chat featuring Vice President Kamala Harris, who used her candid, one-on-one session with Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin to stress to the audience that there was a bit more than 100 days before voters went to the polls for the midterm races.
Harris also stated that Democratic victories would be a byproduct of “building community and coalitions to empower people,” emphasizing that the Black electorate needed to join women and the LGBTQ community, which has recently witnessed renewed attacks from conservative lawmakers over same-sex marriage.
Much is at stake with the Dems as they must contend with the fact the they may lose its razor-thin majority in both houses, which is common for the party in power during this election cycle. “We must show them that they are not alone,” Harris told those assembled at the convention.
Morial admits that a major objective was to get NUL membership, Black people, and others “energized, but we are not there yet.” He is particularly focused on younger voters who came out in droves during the 2020 presidential election.
Morial believes large numbers of Black millennials and Gen Z voters have “withdrawn because they feel the political system has largely failed them,” citing the inability of the Democratic-controlled Congress to pass such measures as voting rights bills, including the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would have restored and bolstered key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013; as well as legislation to combat police misconduct like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, named after the victim whose murder in the custody of the Minneapolis police department in May 2020 sparked global protests over police brutality and systemic racial inequality.
“What young people have to realize is that we really didn’t have a majority…We have two Democratic members of the Senate that embraced the Republican cause,” Morial says, referring to US Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and how their alignment with the conservative right has served to derail key portions of the Democratic legislative agenda.
“Young people cannot let the frustration of a setback turn into a defeat,” asserts Morial, who has cited historic gains during the Biden-Harris administration, most notably the election of Harris, the first Black female vice president, the installation of Lisa Cook, the first Black female member of the Federal Reserve Board, and the confirmation of Kentaji Brown Jackson, the first Black female Supreme Court justice.
Morial says what is critical is the development of a stronger alliance between the NUL and Black corporate and business leadership. He applauded the actions of more than 70 Black, high-ranking executives, including former CEOs of the nation’s largest publicly traded corporations and BE 100s companies that assembled for the first time to focus on a core social justice issue in March 2021. The group launched a campaign to address restrictive voting laws driven by Republican-dominated legislatures in more than 40 states, including Georgia and Arizona, to make voting far more difficult for legions of Black voters.
“This battle requires consistency and sustainability,” stressed Morial, comparing today’s civil rights struggle to a famously brutal, energy-depleting boxing match. “Everyone has to understand that they can’t score a first-round knockout. This is an all-out brawl like the Thrilla in Manila.”