In 1903 when W.E.B. DuBois predicted that “the problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line,’’ African-Americans had every reason to agree.
Seven years earlier, in a case originating in my home state of Louisiana, segregation and the since discredited doctrine of “separate but equal’’ were legalized in the Supreme Court’s infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision.
That outrageous decision set the stage for the civil rights struggles of the last century. It also helped give birth to two of the greatest defenders of equality in our nation’s history — the NAACP, which was founded in 1909, and the National Urban League, which came into existence in 1910.
One hundred years later, the NAACP and the National Urban League are
still opening the doors of freedom, insisting on full admittance for the descendants of slaves.
But, because of the leadership of these two organizations and countless
others over the last century, many of the legal barriers to equality have fallen.
DuBois would be astonished to see that at the beginning of the 21st century, America elected its first African- American president.
The election of Barack Obama was a watershed moment in America’s oldest and most difficult internal struggle. But incidents like the expulsion of Black children from a swimming pool in Philadelphia and the wide disparities in education, criminal justice and health make it clear that the civil rights struggle is not over.
The big challenges now facing our communities are increasingly the same as those facing the rest of the country.
While African-Americans continue to suffer disproportionately from the lack of universal health care, the epidemic of housing foreclosures and the current economic meltdown, we are not alone.
These are challenges that affect every American and they require that we combine personal responsibility with sensible public policies to make the American Dream real for everyone who is willing to work for it. That was the overriding theme of the National Urban League Annual Conference in Chicago July 28 through Aug. 1.
In one of the most comprehensive line-ups of workshops and speakers ever assembled, we emphasized that our path to power in the 21st century requires that we lead beyond the narrow confines of traditional civil rights for African Americans (only).
Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.
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