By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; 4:12 PM
When the National Urban League opened its doors 100 years ago, African Americans were leaving the sharecropping South for big Northern cities. They migrated in droves, and the group -- which then called itself the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes -- was founded to help the newcomers improve their work lives and squalid housing.
A century later, the league remains focused on housing and jobs. The issues today stem from the disproportionate rate of foreclosure and unemployment that African Americans face in this economic downturn.
On Wednesday, the group's leader, Marc Morial, released the league's "State of Black America" report, a compilation of data that has told the halting tale of black economic advancement. The league was founded in 1910 to foster black economic equality, but progress has been slow, Morial said.
With the health-care bill signed, he is pushing hard for a jobs bill that will bring down the double-digit unemployment rate among African Americans. Last month, blacks were unemployed at nearly twice the rate of whites, 15.9 percent to 8.8 percent.
"We need a strong jobs bill to put people back to work, not a modest jobs bill," Morial said at a news conference at which the report was released. "A nation that can spend billions of dollars bailing out banks on Wall Street can and should pass a jobs bill that helps out-of-work Americans."
He said the economic stimulus and the jobs bill passed by Congress a week ago did not do enough to target employment in poor communities.
The need is urgent, Morial said. When the Urban League began tracking economic and racial disparities annually in 1974, black families made 58 percent as much as white families -- a median of $7,808 compared with $13,356. In 2008, black families made 62 percent as much as white families -- $34,218 compared with $55,530.
"It's like being the caboose on a train. African Americans are the caboose," Morial said. "If the train goes 20 miles an hour, you're the caboose. If the train goes 200 miles an hour, you're the caboose. You can move faster and still be behind.
"The [economic] disparity should never mask the fact that we have more African Americans who are middle class than ever before, but there's a continuing duality of our community."
That duality has created confusion for the Urban League and other traditional black civil rights groups, which are contending with a setback in black economic advancement as they celebrate the administration of the first African American president.
The most recent rift has arisen over the jobs bill. Morial, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the head of the NAACP have asked President Obama and Congress to do more to help blacks. Obama has declined to target any specific racial group, insisting that a rising economic tide will lift African Americans as well as others.
"This window of opportunity gives us a chance to really begin to look at the chronically unemployed," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the CBC. "It's just do we have the political will to do this?"
Morial -- who met with the president last month along with NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and the Rev. Al Sharpton -- has been easier on Obama, noting the president's popularity among black voters and his willingness to hear ideas for creating a direct jobs program.
In the aftermath of the meeting, black political commentator Tavis Smiley criticized Morial and the others for not putting more pressure on Obama to carve out a specific black agenda.
Morial dismissed the criticism as a "broadside" but acknowledged the tensions. "In the 1960s, we were very clear that dismantling racial desegregation was the goal," he said. "The question now is: What are the next sets of goals? What we need now are goals with tangible outcomes."
That question weighs heavily on the Urban League as it celebrates its centennial. Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans whose father was the city's first African American mayor, has taken a practical approach. He gives the league's history a quick acknowledgement as he pushes a new set of ideas called "I am empowered."
The program asks African Americans to pledge to achieve four goals by 2025: have every child ready for college and make sure every worker has access to a living wage, quality health care and safe housing.
Even with the new goals, debate continues about whether the league still has a significant role to play. Rhonda Sharpe, a professor of business and economics at North Carolina's Bennett College, said the group is "probably more relevant because there is a segment of America that thinks that all is well because we have a black president. There are racial disparities that we must address."
David Wilson, a professor of political science at the University of Delaware, compared the league to an out-of-step black politician. "One of the big problems is branding and connection," he said. "If you still have the same kind of principles and agenda that was prevalent in the 1940s and 50s, it makes it harder for young people to connect."
The organization was founded in New York on Sept. 29, 1910, by Ruth Standish Baldwin, the widow of a railroad magnate and philanthropist, and George Edmund Haynes, the first African American to receive a doctorate from Columbia University. From the beginning, its focus was on gaining jobs for blacks, pushing against the color line within organized labor and cleaning up urban housing.
By the 1920s, it began setting up vocational centers in black communities to help prepare teenagers for jobs. There are now 97 Urban League centers across the country that provide job training and counseling on housing, programs that are backed by private and public grants. Three-fourths of the people served by the centers are younger than 30.
In the 1960s, with civil rights leader Whitney Young as president, the league opened an office in Washington and began lobbying the White House and Congress. Vernon Jordan, a lawyer and business executive who held the post in the 1970s, issued the first "State of Black America" report in 1976, calling it a "profoundly depressing document."
At a news conference that year he said "no year in recent history had been more destructive for black [economic] progress than 1975. The condition of black Americans, once the benchmark of America's commitment to equality and justice, is now the object of malign neglect and hostile disregard."
Economic progress for blacks came to a near halt in the 1970s. It further deteriorated in the 1980s; recovered in the 1990s; and is eroding again, said Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University and expert at the Urban Institute.
"The challenges of 2010 are in some ways much more complicated than the challenges of 1910," Holzer said. "Achievement gaps are harder to turn around. It's not like you can pass a law outlawing it. [The Urban League] understands that the times are very difficult, and the challenges are difficult, and they are adapting to that."