By: Hugh B. Price
National Urban League
As many of this column's readers may know by now, I've just announced I'm stepping down as president of the National Urban League next April—and I've been amused to see that some apparently have wondered whether my decision is a sign of a “crisis” in the civil rights movement.
Their questioning recalls an anecdote I once heard about Charles DeGaulle, the great French hero of World War II who became its president in the late 1950s and rescued it from its long postwar malaise and political confusion.
It was at some ceremony during his presidency that an aide, overwhelmed with DeGaulle's achievements and his imposing physical presence (he stood well above six feet tall), gushed his admiration to him. “Monsieur le President,” he said at the end of a long paragraph of praise, “you are indispensable to France.”
DeGaulle, whose icy reserve and resistance to flattery was legendary, looked down at his shorter aide standing by his side and coolly replied, “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.”
I've always believed I have a healthy ego, and I've been inspired and proud to follow the long line of stalwart leaders and staffers of the National Urban League and to guide it into the 21st century. But I've never believed that I as one individual was—or should be—”indispensable” to the League. It's the organization, not any single individual that is indispensable.
My belief was bolstered by the accomplishments of my predecessors at the Urban League: Whitney M. Young, Jr., Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. and John E. Jacob. I came of age professionally wanting to be like Whitney, like Vernon, like Jake. I got to do it, and it just doesn't get any better than that.
We've all done our part to build the Urban League—founded in 1910 to aid black Southern migrants then streaming to urban centers in the North and West—into the oldest and largest community-based movement empowering African Americans to enter America's mainstream. And we were aided and pushed by many individual staffers and supporters whose names are far less well known but whose contributions have also been indispensable.
In other words, the point is not that individuals are indispensable. The point is that the mission and the work to achieve it are indispensable.
That mission—the full integration of African Americans into the American mainstream—remains; and the Urban League's pursuit of it is powered by the ideals behind the words which formed the League's first slogan nine decades ago: “Not alms, but opportunity.”
The need for the Urban League (along with others, of course) to continue its advocacy of expanding opportunity to ever-widening circles of Americans is as great as ever.
A multitude of issues—among them, continuing problems of police abuse and racial profiling against people of color; continuing evidence that African Americans endure severe racial discrimination on the job and in pursuit of buying a home; a sheaf of reports showing widespread racial bias in the nation's criminal justice system; and providing equal educational opportunity for all African-American children—say that's so.
So, then, if the struggle continues, why, then, do I intend to step down from the helm of the Urban League?
Because, as I implied above, I've always firmly believed that leaders of national organizations like the Urban League shouldn't cling to their posts for years on end. The civil rights movement is not a sprint. It's both a marathon—which demands the commitment and the stamina to do the hard, unglamorous work day in and day out—and also a relay race: You run your hardest, you do your best to build upon the strengths of the organization, and then you pass the baton on, as it was passed to you.
That's where I am now. I've been running hard for the nearly nine years I've led the Urban League, criss-crossing the country most weeks, and weekends, out of the year to give speeches and meet with our wonderful workers and friends in the field. It's the right time for me to pass the baton—before, not after, I get winded or start to stumble.
Also, and this is even more personal, after nine years of traveling incessantly, I'm determined to find a more sensible balance between my professional and personal lives.
Finally, I believe that at my age, 61, there's one more major professional challenge out there in the world of work waiting for me. I have no idea what it is yet. I haven't been out secretly shopping; that would have been unfair to both the Urban League and to me. But I'm not afraid to look for it.
Whatever my future holds, I have no doubt of the Urban League's future—thanks to the work of our staff all over the country and our supporters—nor of the need for the National Urban League to, as they say in the community, keep on keeping on.
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