National Urban League President Marc H. Morial did not look very comfortable at a podium in Cobo Center. His eyes had narrowed into slits because of the television lights at a news conference, and he had paused to consider an awkward question: "What is the Urban League's position on the civil rights agenda of the Bush administration?"
Morial wiped the front of his immaculate gray pinstriped suit and talked briefly about the differences his civil rights organization has with both major-party candidates in the presidential campaign -- but pointedly declined to answer the question. "I just don't want to offend them at this point," he said.
His reticence Wednesday night spoke volumes about why President Bush chose to address the Urban League on Friday, rather than addressing the NAACP's gathering last week -- a meeting he skipped for the fourth straight year. His speech will come a day after one by Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), his Democratic opponent.
A few days before the NAACP convention, Chairman Julian Bond opined that the Bush administration draws "its most rabid followers from the Taliban wing" of the Republican Party. White House aides said Bond's comments and others like them had crossed a line of civility, and Bush said he had a "basically nonexistent" relationship with the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization.
By choosing diplomacy, Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans, was building on a relationship he has worked hard to establish with the president. Earlier this month, Bush invited him to his speech celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and singled him out. "Where's Marc?" Bush called out, prompting C-SPAN cameras to find him in the crowd.
But in Cobo Center's massive convention hall, several convention-goers lambasted Bush for being the first president since Warren G. Harding to decline to address the NAACP's national convention while in office.
Many said that they shared Bond's view of the Republican Party and that they would be polite but cold during the president's speech. Convention-goers had a more favorable opinion of Kerry, whose civil rights voting record has been judged favorable by both the NAACP and the Urban League, but some described him as the lesser of evils because he has not been outspoken on issues of concern to African Americans.
Morial said the president's choice to speak to the Urban League shows "we're powerful and influential, and that's important. My advice would have been for the president to speak at both the NAACP and the Urban League."
"If this is only about who came and who didn't come, African Americans lose," Morial said. "But if it's about what gets discussed . . . on a consistent basis, then we win."
Joseph Williams, vice president of development and marketing for the Urban League of Greater Hartford, described Bush's decision as "part of a divide-and-conquer strategy" and an attempt "to show he believes in diversity when he does not."
Craig Lee, executive director of the Committee for Equity in Economic Development of Shreveport, La., had a theory about why the Urban League was more acceptable to the president. "The Urban League is a byproduct of the white business community," Lee said. "You don't have a chairman of the board like Julian Bond, who's just going to rip you. The corporate community will tell George Bush which Negroes are safe and which Negroes are not."
Members of the Urban League's executive staff said Lee's opinion was harsh and unfair, yet it was shared by more than a few convention-goers.
Morial, an NAACP member since age 7, said it is almost impossible for Bush or anyone else to divide the nation's most prominent civil rights organizations. "Nothing will separate the long bond and history between the NAACP and the Urban League," he said.
N. Charles Anderson, president and chief executive of the Urban League's Detroit chapter and a former NAACP worker, reflected on how the two organizations began.
The NAACP was founded in 1909 to confront racial hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and speak out against lynchings and other crimes against black Americans, he said. The Urban League was formed a year later as a partnership between black and white residents to help black southerners who moved to northern cities during what historians call the great migration.
The NAACP, with its 500,000 members, is a black organization. The Urban League is black-oriented, run by a 40-member, multiethnic trustee board, and its legacy of choosing a black president with community ties and a white chairman with business ties continues today -- and yields millions of dollars in corporate donations.
Anderson said the Urban League's more cordial relationship with the White House is the result of a practical decision. "I speculate that we withheld any real assessment of Mr. Bush, whereas Mr. Bond and [NAACP President] Kweisi Mfume did not."
The issue is not about who said what, or what role the organizations play, said Urban League Chairman Michael J. Critelli. It is about black unemployment levels that he described as catastrophic, the damage the HIV/AIDS epidemic has wrought on black women, the disparity in black and white homeownership, poor schools in black communities, and other issues, he said.
"We're here to deliver services and solve problems," said Critelli, chairman of Pitney Bowes Inc. "I'm impatient with people who walk away from solving problems to comment on the motivations of people who are trying to solve problems. We need Republicans, Democrats, businesses and neighborhoods, all the stakeholders together."