Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
It would likely be impossible to find a more startling juxtaposition of events than the four I have in mind that occurred during the past two weeks.
On the one hand was the solemn, inspiring ceremony October 3 of the re-burial twelve years after they were first discovered at a site in Lower Manhattan of the skeletal remains of 400 African Americans who lived, some free, some as slaves, in colonial New York.
Contrasting sharply with that example of human perseverance of long ago and of the modern-day compassion which preserved their burial ground stand three racially-charged comments made by individuals acting astonishing badly.
The first is the now-infamous racially-derogatory remarks commentator Rush Limbaugh made about Donovan McNabb, the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles pro football team and one of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League.
Limbaugh, who in all his years in the media had never shown any expertise about any sport, said on the ESPN pre-game show September 28 that McNabb was overrated by the media because it wanted a black quarterback to do well in the NFL.
The other two comments came from radio talk-show hosts in Boston, and Rochester, New York, respectively.
In Boston, radio station WEEI suspended two white prominent talk show hosts, John Dennis and Gerry Callahan, for two weeks because they likened a three hundred pound-gorilla who had briefly escaped from the city zoo to children in a well-established voluntary busing program which since the 1960s has bused black children from inner-city Boston to predominantly white schools in its suburbs.
In Rochester, radio station WHAM fired a white talk show host, Bob Lonsberry, after he twice referred to the city's Mayor, William Johnson, Jr., who is African-American and running for county executive, as an orangutan.
Johnson is also a former, immensely well-regarded president of the National Urban League's affiliate there, the Rochester Urban League.
Some have already tried to dismiss the controversies one or all of these latter three incidents have provoked. Mere words, they say, from those paid to push listeners' "hot buttons." Others have glibly declared that Limbaugh's comments were not offensive because they merely show how consumed with the topic of race America is these days.
In fact, however, these expressions of such primitive bigotry are shocking, as revealing as the "poor choice of words" which put Senator Trent Lott's racial attitudes up for close scrutiny last winter—and they are as revealing.
They underscore in dramatic fashion a central feature of the status and dynamic of race in American society: persistence.
There is the persistence, on the negative side, of what one might call bedrock bigotry: The ignoring of the reality of Donovan McNabb's stellar five-year pro career in a position—quarterback—that was once all but officially closed to black players in order to declare him "overrated." And, more viciously, there is the likening of black people, even children, to animals.
But, fortunately, there has also existed a persistent refusal to surrender to the forces of bigotry and persistent efforts to expand opportunity for all within America's borders.
That was the guiding spirit of the Urban League's founding more than ninety years ago, and it still informs all of our work. But by no means have we ever had an exclusive franchise on that quality.
Indeed, there are millions upon millions of examples of the indomitable will African Americans have used to find their way in this land since their ancestors whose bones once again lie in their first resting place in New York City lived.
So, too, the career of Rochester's Bill Johnson, and the achievements of the thousands of black schoolchildren, and, just as importantly, of their parents in the Boston voluntary busing program exemplify the persistence required to expand the boundaries of decency and justice and opportunity.
It's one reason we intend to establish a commission to examine the status of black males in American society—including the derogatory images they endure as well as problems in employment and unemployment, education, and their over-representation in the nation's prisons—and forge recommendations for positive change.
I already know what one "plank" of that commission's final report will stress: That success, for individuals, for African Americans as a group, and for America will not come without the persistence to continue to carve out a hard-earned place of respect and opportunity in the American mainstream.
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