Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
As I'm sure many Americans were, I was astonished—and happy—last week to read of the extraordinary contribution that Alphonse Fletcher, Jr., pledged to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education.
Fletcher, a 1987 Harvard graduate and a hugely successful Wall Street money manager, said he would give $50 million to individuals and institutions to further the work of racial progress and expand opportunities for impoverished African Americans.
For example, multi-year fellowships would be given to scholars, writers and artists whose work has helped expand concepts as well as the actual boundaries of opportunity. The outstanding work Yale child psychiatrist James P. Comer has done in broadening educational opportunity for poor schoolchildren across the country would be substantially underwritten.
And finally, several important institutions—the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Howard University School of Law, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.—would also be supported.
"My parents always said we should always strive to be better than the best,"Buddy (his nickname) Fletcher told the New York Times by way of explanation. "My mother always emphasized that we should transcend whatever hurdles there are, and not be held back, distracted or derailed."
It's clear that Fletcher realizes those words can become mere rhetoric unless a focused effort is made to provide the necessary support to bring opportunity within reach. His father and mother—the one a technician with the General Dynamics corporation, the other, an elementary school principal—provided that moral and material support for him and his two younger brothers growing up in Waterford, Connecticut.
Now, Fletcher is seeking to insure that the kind of inspiration he received from his parents and others—to pursue achievement—will be passed on to more and more young people.
In mulling over Buddy Fletcher's great success and even greater generosity (several years ago he endowed a professorship at Harvard in honor of his late father), I realized two striking things.
One has to do with his accomplishments, which include graduating with a degree in applied mathematics from Harvard and being elected president of his graduating class, before moving on to a career of extraordinary success on Wall Street.
Buddy Fletcher's the kind of elite-college black student and black alumni you almost never read about or hear about in the mainstream media—determined in his pursuit of achievement at college and beyond, and committed to improving the quality of life for black Americans and the larger American society.
And yet, exceptional though he is, Buddy Fletcher's not "the exception,"either among his black peers from Ivy or other predominantly white colleges or among graduates of predominantly black ones.
My experience with the National Urban League's Young Professionals, our 3,000-member-strong auxiliary for young black adults who see the Urban League as a viable conduit for their volunteerism, has convinced me of that.
The impulse for "civic engagement"is as strong among today's young black adults and their younger counterparts as it was when our longtime auxiliary, the National Urban League Guild, was formed in the early 1940s.
That led me to the second striking conclusion about Buddy Fletcher's gift.
The gift is not the money—as welcome as the funds are. The dollars are simply, if one can use that word here, the manifestation of something more profound. Buddy Fletcher's fundamental gift to the cause of racial justice and the common good in America is his sense of kinship with his fellow human beings, his determination to do what he can to help close the "equality gaps"that still exist within American society.
This philanthropic spirit is a very old tradition within Black America, as Emmett Carson, the president of the Minneapolis Foundation and an authority on black philanthropy, noted in a trenchant essay in the Urban League's The State of Black America 1998, and it has been expressed in many, many ways.
But however expressed, it has always stemmed from an abiding faith in the principles of the American Ideal, and a faith and a determination to prove that that Ideal exists to be shared among all the people of America.
That was the faith and determination which propelled the civil rights activists and the scores of ordinary black folk who made the Brown decision not just possible but imperative.
So, it's poignantly appropriate that Buddy Fletcher, one of their beneficiaries, has stepped forward to help others continue their work.
The National Urban League Conference in Detroit from July 21 -25 will include a seminar on the Legacy of the Brown Decision. To register, call toll-free 1-800-263-9926, or register online at www.nul.org. And don't forget to do your duty in this important Election Year: register to vote, and vote!
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