Looking Forward; Leaving No One Behind

By: One of the powerful recommendations Judge Damon J. Keith, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Detroit, made last Saturday evening in his brief remarks to the closing dinner of the National Urban League Annual Conference was his urging his listeners to pursue an age-old responsibility all human beings have:

"To do things,"said Judge Keith, one of the nation's great jurists, "not because they're the easy thing to do, or the expedient thing to do, or the popular thing to do; but because it's the right thing to do."

Those words of advice—to act in ways that constitute the right thing to do—succinctly characterize the animating principle that permeated our four-day gathering last week in Motown.

Now more than ever, as we face extraordinary danger from abroad and potentially crippling problems at home, it is the duty of all Americans to do things that are the right things to do—such as immersing themselves in the political campaign and registering to vote, and then voting.

Certainly, there was a palpable sense of urgency of the 4,000 or so Urban League staffers and supporters and visitors who gathered at the Cobo Hall convention center in downtown Detroit to discuss the present and future of the country.

And it was sharpened noticeably by the presence on successive days of the major parties' respective presidential candidates, Senator John Kerry, and President Bush.

That both chose to make the Urban League Conference a stop on their respective campaign trails underscores the work the League has always done to help Americans bridge the gaps between blacks and whites and other people of color, and to promote the idea of civic engagement for the public good.

We especially appreciated the two standard-bearers' accepting our invitation to speak this year because it reinforces our point—which we make in nonpartisan fashion—that involvement in politics is one critical way individuals and groups can empower communities and change lives.

This year, against the backdrop of a global war against terror, America chooses its next president. Nothing could be more important than all Americans who are eligible to vote making sure that they can and will do so.

That's a right thing to do.

It's also right that we citizens demand a great deal from those who seek to lead the nation. We must not only demand that they say what they'll do to make the world safe from the purveyors of terror. We must also demand of them their plans to mend the American economy and extend prosperity to not just a few but to many.

For all of its importance, the terror war is not the only war the U.S. is waging. There's a war right here at home, too: a war against a broken economy that's left millions of the long-term jobless bereft of all government unemployment assistance, and millions of others fast approaching that cut-off point; a war that still has millions of America's citizens with incomes below the poverty line, and tens of millions without health insurance.

The list of the serious social ills afflicting America, and particularly its urban centers and populations, is a long one. The efforts to solve them can't be left to languish while we fight the war on terror. In fact, closing the economic gap, and the equality gap, between black and white, rich and poor, and the haves and have-nots is one of the great challenges America faces.

That's why in this election, we want to be sure to avoid the disingenuous spectacle of "drive-by politics." We've declared to both parties and both candidates that it's not enough to drop by to see us for a speech or two that's long on rhetoric but short on substance and commitment.

That's why last week we challenged both President Bush and Senator Kerry to add another debate to their current schedule—a live televised debate this fall devoted exclusively to urban and civil rights issues.

As yet, although Senator Kerry expressed a general willingness to debate anytime anywhere, neither he nor President Bush has accepted our specific invitation for such a debate.

But we intend to keep pressing the issue.

No one can deny there's no shortage of serious problems affecting urban America—the wretched state of many public schools, enabling the jobless to get back to work, with livable wages and affordable health care, increasing investment capital in small businesses, which offer opportunity for individuals and can be the economic lifeblood of many neighborhoods, to mention just a few.

But, with the nation's political establishment and political journalists focused on foreign policy and the war on terrorism, such domestic issues are likely to get scant attention in Presidential campaign in general, and the debates in particular.

The added debate we have in mind, to be co-sponsored by nationally respected minority organizations, would ensure a fairer, more comprehensive discussion of the full range of issues that rightly deserve to play a role in affecting the outcome of the election.

In other words, it is a way of ensuring that, as America looks forward to its immediate and longer-term future, it acts to guarantee that no one be left behind.

That's a right thing to do.

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