Quiet Activism on The Movement’s Front Lines

Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

Less than a month ago the nation marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in the Brown v Board of Education school desegregation case.

That decision, in launching the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, provoked a decade and more of the spectacular events—marches and demonstrations, and yes, violent acts which claimed the lives of brave, good people—that produced a vast expansion of freedom and justice and opportunity in America.

But the African-American quest for the full measure of their American citizenship before and during the years it exploded across the American landscape was always marked far more by what I call "quiet activism."
By that I mean the behind-the-scenes work that garnered no headlines and drew little attention, but was absolutely crucial to forging the development of individuals and expanding the bonds of community within Black America that made the Movement at the local and national levels possible.

I've been impressed anew with the quiet activism that's going on all over Black America because I've just returned from a five-day tour of National Urban League affiliates in Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio as part of the prelude to our 2004 Annual Conference in Detroit July 21 to 25.

Our tour was the old-fashioned barnstorming kind: We did it by a specially-outfitted National Urban League bus, criss-crossing the central Midwest from Chicago to Gary, Indiana to Muskegon, Muskegon Heights, and Grand Rapids, and on to Akron, Cleveland, and Elyria, Ohio.

We called it our "Empowerment Bus Tour"as a means of reinforcing for their citizens our five-point empowerment agenda—focused on education, economic self-sufficiency, a healthy lifestyle, civic engagement, and protection of civil rights—for all Americans.

But it was those of us from our national headquarters office who were most inspired by seeing again the varied ways people in these communities have banded together to try to make life better for themselves and their neighbors.

In Chicago, as guests of the Chicago Urban League, we met with business leaders and conferred with the staffs of two pioneer African-American publications, Ebony and Jet magazines.

Then, we rolled on to Gary, where the Urban League of Northwest Indiana staged a truly special event.

Before we met with hundreds of Gary residents at a special reception in our honor, we sat with more than 7,000 students, second- to sixth-graders, and parents and teachers from every Gary public elementary school in the Steel Yard baseball stadium and read aloud for fifteen minutes author Mychal Wynn's allegorical fable of empowerment and discovery, "The Eagles Who Thought They Were Chickens."

Our reading broke the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people reading aloud together in one place, a source of enormous excitement to us all.

The greatest pleasure, however, was seeing and hearing what being able to read well meant to these youngsters. "It was great, second-grader Dwonae Dodd, told a reporter for Gary's Post-Tribune newspaper, "I liked it because I got to read in front of a lot of people. I liked it because I felt I was one with the crowd. I just love to read."

In Muskegon, Muskegon Heights and Grand Rapids, Michigan and Elyria, Ohio we saw cities, hit hard by the transformations of the American and global workplace, fighting hard and successfully to maintain themselves as viable communities.

In Akron and Cleveland, Ohio, we saw Urban League affiliates, among the oldest in our 105-member affiliate network, open or preview the design for new, expansive headquarters.

The Cleveland affiliate's new headquarters includes a multicultural business center, intended to develop a cadre of black and Latino entrepreneurs to help anchor and re-develop urban communities.

In Akron, now in the midst of a capital campaign, the new site of our affiliate there will rise amid a planned educational and cultural complex: It's on the same block as a proposed new elementary school, just down the street from the headquarters of the city library, around the corner from the Akron Zoo, and near an eleven-acre city sports complex and the city's special school for the visual and performing arts.

The location of Akron's new headquarters underscores how deeply a part of the overall fabric of their communities our affiliates are. In every city on our tour, a cross-section of the community—elected officials, business and civic leaders, and people who had been directly helped by Urban League staff—came out to greet us.

They came out, not, I was heartened to see, as a tribute to us, but as a tribute to the leaders and staff of our affiliates—the quiet activists working on the front lines of the movement for social justice in America.

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