Urban League conference shifts focus from economy to equality

Matt Rourke/AP - Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, holds up a card with a photo of her son as she speaks at the National Urban League's annual conference Friday in Philadelphia.

PHILADELPHIA — Lawrence Fugett arrived here at the National Urban League’s national convention with three things on his mind: networking, job tips and justice.

The third item was new for the 35-year-old banker from Oklahoma City, but advocates say these are unusual times in the civil rights arena, and as a result, the three-day convention has been infused with a new sense of activism.

“When you look at everything that has been going on, it becomes clear we still need to fight for things,” Fugett said. “I came here to learn how to advance my career, but I’m inspired now to become more political.”

Founded in 1910, the Urban League is the oldest community-based civil rights organization in the country. Over the years, however, the focus of its annual convention shifted from the civil rights struggle to a huge professional networking event.

This year seems different.

The registration period for the conference was already open by the time the Supreme Court last month rescinded a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. As résumés were being polished for the conference’s job fair, a Florida jury concluded that the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin could go home free.

Together, the events became a call to action for many of the 6,000 in attendance.

Sybrina Fulton was handing out an unusual kind of business card. The back featured a now-
familiar photo — of her dead son, Trayvon Martin, wearing a hoodie — that she distributed in the hope that people will fight to “not let this happen to anybody else’s child.”

“No college for Trayvon. No grandkids coming from Trayvon,” she told attendees. “All because of a law, a law that has prevented the person who shot and killed my son to be held accountable and to pay for this awful crime.”

Organizers revised some events and invited new guests, including Fulton. Speakers were asked to focus less on the economy and more on equality. By the time Fugett sat down Thursday for an early-morning session, the theme of “Jobs Rebuild America” was an afterthought. An “emergency town hall” had been called to address voting rights.

“I know there may be anger, frustration and sadness as a result of the killing of Trayvon Martin. I know that many are upset about the effort to dismantle voting rights,” Urban League President Marc Morial said, adding, “We must not become cynical or lethargic in our quest for justice.”

When Attorney General Eric H. Holder announced Thursday at the convention that he was pushing for greater federal scrutiny for voting changes in Texas, he got a standing ovation.

Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, asked everyone in attendance to stand. She summed up the session’s message simply: “It’s movement time.”

Just how such a movement will manifest itself has long been a salient question for civil rights organizations. As the harshest forms of racism receded in the United States and blacks made economic and social gains, many organizations such as the Urban League became more a draw for those interested in socializing with fellow professionals than a place for social activism.

“We can get complacent and think we have arrived,” said Emma Chappell, founder of the United Bank of Philadelphia and treasurer of Jesse L. Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. “Or we never take issues as seriously because we’re out enjoying our lives. But now some things have become clear.”

Morial, the Urban League president, said that for years, many of the group’s members were less interested in the kind of marches that had been so central to the civil rights movement.

The August events honoring the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, for example, were originally planned as a commemorative tribute.

“But now, people see the greater need or urgency and want to participate,” Morial said. “There’s something to march for.”

Most interesting, he said, was the spirit of activism among young professionals at the convention. On Friday, during a panel presentation before a packed auditorium, Jackson and Al Sharpton stressed the importance of action.

Keisha Robinson, 34, of McLean stood and asked a question. She wanted to know whether there was a broader vision than “just marching.”

“How can we do more?” she asked.

Jackson interrupted another panelist to answer.

“I’m concerned about those who are tired of marching who never marched,” he said. “I never did just march. Some of us never just marched. . . . We never lost a battle because we fought.”

Still, Robinson’s question reflected her different reality. Never having faced the overt discrimination that afflicted their parents and grandparents, many young people in attendance saw the Urban League primarily as a vehicle for professional networking. Rather than sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, they often just do lunch.

At the luncheon for young professionals, placards on the dining tables grouped people by profession. A table for “engineers,” one for “project managers,” “consultants,” “elected officials.”

Brandi Richards, president of the league’s young professional group, said the conference had a different air this year.

“A lot of us were impacted by the Zimmerman verdict,’’ she said. “It impacted us in a way that forced us to really understand our vulnerability and showed us the need for change.”

She is not sure, however, whether this fervor will continue. The first big test will come next month, with anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. There, she said, they are prepared to stand in the sun and demand change, like earlier generations.

But, Keisha Robinson suggests, something more or different will be required.

“There’s an evolution to everything,” Robinson said in an interview after Jackson’s passionate retort. “Sometimes you have to change strategies for the time. And these are new times.”

 
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