The Test of Our Still-Untested Democracy

By: Marc H. Morial
President
National Urban League

I've recently been mulling over words from two speeches I know and the meaning of the new great wave of migration—this time by people of Hispanic descent—swelling America's population.

The first speech is one of the greatest of American history: Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

"Fourscore and seven years ago," Lincoln began the brief, two-minute speech on November 19, 1863 with words that still resound today, "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now, we are engaged," he continued, speaking to the throng that had gathered on what remains the most hallowed battlefield in America, "in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

It was the word "testing" that did it for me. Lincoln's great insight, expressed in a wonderful prose poem, was to identify that the nation's rhetorical commitment to freedom and equality was to be tested by the forward march of human affairs and that Americans' supreme task was to insure that "this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Lincoln's insight washed over me again at the conclusion of the National Urban League annual conference last month when Charles M. Collins, our outgoing Senior Vice Chairman, in a poignant speech about his decades of service to the League, referred to the civil rights work still necessary in order to preserve, as he put it, "our still-untested democracy."

These words have underscored for me how important it is to realize that America itself was forged out of successive waves of migration of people who were "different" from those already here.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries those waves of immigrants—mostly poor, unlettered whites from the far reaches of Europe, and mostly poor, unlettered blacks from the racist American South—were largely greeted with an undisguised, fierce hostility from those who, like the great novelist Henry James, declared these "inconceivable aliens" would be the ruination of the country.

Now, of course, we revel in the fact that their talent and quest for achievement and patriotism became its salvation.

The National Urban League itself is a product of America's migration dynamic. It was founded in 1910 in New York City to help African-American migrants streaming there adjust to the demands and opportunities of urban—that is to say, modern—living.

The dream that produced the Urban League is yet to be completed, of course. But in recent decades, African Americans' quest for inclusion has been joined by America's latest immigrant floodtide—peoples from Asia, Africa, and, especially, those of Hispanic descent from the Caribbean and Latin America.

Some have branded the Hispanic immigrant floodtide a "threat" to "American values." Others have sought to pit Hispanic Americans against African Americans by playing a numbers game of which group is more populous.

But, as Hugh B. Price, my predecessor as president of the Urban League, wrote in 2001 when the number of Hispanic Americans first surpassed the number of African Americans, "the improvement of one group's status should not mean the decline of another's, not in America."

As Price and many black and Hispanic politicians and civic leaders have pointed out, African Americans and Hispanic Americans share a great deal: common problems and challenges in such areas as education, economics, access to health care, impoverished communities held hostage by crime, and severely disproportionate rates of incarceration of both males and females.

But they also share many good qualities—a cultural and intellectual vitality that America needs and that they are determined to give as their "fee" for admission into the mainstream of American society.
That shared determination was on view during our annual conference as Americans of all backgrounds gathered to discuss our challenges, and, equally important, map out strategies for solving them.

Janet Murguia, the president and chief executive of the National Council of La Raza, and Bruce Gordon, the president and chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, underscored by their presence and their words the importance of understanding the migration dynamic in American life—and grasping the opportunity it presents.

That opportunity, in these years when America's commitment to civil liberties is being tested by its need to guard against a profound terrorist threat, is to continue to meet the challenge—the test—that Abraham Lincoln so poetically identified and continue to advance the inclusion of all those Americans still on the road to the American mainstream.

That campaign is what Urban League stalwart Charles M. Collins meant when he called upon us to persevere to aid "our still-untested democracy."

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