M. Carl Holman, 69, a poet, editor, scholar and civil rights leader who had been president of the National Urban Coalition for the last 17 years, died of cancer Aug. 9 at Howard University Hospital.

A former college English professor, Mr. Holman was an articulate and forceful spokesman for the urban poor and underprivileged, and he was passionate in his argument about the need to improve educational opportunities for black children.

He was sometimes described as a godfather of the civil rights movement, and he was trusted and consulted by a range of organizations and individuals, from the most radical to the most conservative. He had an uncanny ability to form a coalition out of the most diverse elements, and it was often said that the key to his ability to do this was the fact that he never appeared to have an agenda for himself.

For years, Mr. Holman had traveled extensively about the nation, exhorting black audiences to pay more attention to what he said was the real danger that a large percentage of the next generation of urban blacks would become economically expendable because of a lack of education.

It was not his style to preach or to shake accusatory fingers, but those who heard him could sense his passion and the almost palpable fear in his voice.

"As black America approaches the 21st century, our capacity or our failure to build a solid bridge . . . of works will determine whether millions of young blacks already with us or yet unborn will cross over into the new century, or fall into the abyss," Mr. Holman said this year.

Before moving to Washington in 1962, Mr. Holman taught English at Clark College in Atlanta for 14 years, and while there he was active in the earliest agitations of the civil rights movement. His students participated in lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides.

Mr. Holman was editor of the Atlanta Inquirer, a weekly newspaper that reported civil rights activities throughout the South. In 1962 the paper won a public affairs reporting award from the American Political Science Association.

A native of Minter City, Miss., Mr. Holman grew up in St. Louis and graduated magna cum laude from Lincoln University. He had a master's degree from the University of Chicago and a master of fine arts degree from Yale, which he attended on a creative writing fellowship. Mr. Holman had published several volumes of poetry and had written extensively in magazines and newspapers on a variety of black and urban issues.

He had taught at Hampton Institute and at Lincoln University before joining the faculty at Clark College.

In 1962 Mr. Holman became an information officer at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He became special assistant to the staff director in 1965, and deputy director a year later.

In 1967 the Urban Coalition, an outgrowth of the big city riots of the 1960s, was formed as an advocacy organization for a variety of urban interests with the support of private foundations and corporations. John Gardner, the former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, was the coalition's first president. Mr. Holman became president in 1971.

Over the ensuing years, Mr. Holman became a major fixture on the urban political landscape, calling attention to a range of city problems that extended from inadequate housing to a declining tax base.

In tone, his pronouncements bore a resemblance to certain preachings of the Old Testament prophets: Gentrification and urban renewal were creating a new class of poor "urban nomads"; there was a growing and dangerous chasm between the black middle class and the black underclass; illiteracy in America would blunt the nation's competitive edge in the world economy; high school and college remedial programs were too late because most of the students who need them had already dropped out.

In 1982, on the 15th anniversary of the Urban Coalition's founding, Mr. Holman declared that the nation's cities were "in a desperate situation . . . . There is no doubt in my mind that the cities are in much worse shape now than they were in 1967, with unemployment rampant . . . and with most cities having reached the limit to how much they can raise through local taxes."

In recent years he had promoted what he called a "dual literacy" program for black children, emphasizing not only reading, writing and speaking skills, but also skills in science, math and technology, to be learned beginning at an early age.

Locally, Mr. Holman had served on the D.C. Board of Higher Education, which governed what then was Federal City College. He had also been a housing consultant to Mayor Marion Barry.

Survivors include his wife, Mariella, of Washington; two sons, Kwasi Holman and Kwame Holman, both of Washington; a daughter, Kinshasha Conwill of New York City; a sister, Milterre Jenkins of St. Louis, and four grandchildren.