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Founded in 1910 as the Committee on Urban Conditions among Negroes
Supports racial preferences in employment and college admissions
The National Urban League was established in 1910 as the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (CUCAN), whose key founders were Ruth Standish Baldwin and Dr. George Haynes. Baldwin was the widow of industrialist William H. Baldwin and a well-known member of the Socialist Party; she was also the aunt of ACLU founder Roger Baldwin. Haynes was a social worker and the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Columbia University.
In 1911, CUCAN merged with the Committee for the Improvement of Industrial Conditions among Negroes in New York, and the National League for the Protection of Colored Women, thereby forming the National League on Urban Conditions among Negroes. In 1920 the organization's name was shortened to the National Urban League. Its mission was, and remains, "to enable African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity and power and civil rights."
Haynes was succeeded by Eugene Kinckle Jones, who directed the Urban League from 1918-1941. Best known for his role in founding Alpha Phi Alpha, the first Greek-letter fraternity for blacks in the United States, Jones oversaw the rise of the journal Opportunity, which along with the NAACP's Crisis became the principal African-American literary journals of the Harlem Renaissance. The Urban League also grew more strident in its demands for social reform. It employed boycotts against businesses that did not hire black workers; initiated drives to incorporate blacks into labor unions; and applied pressure on the federal government to ensure that blacks were included in New Deal recovery programs.
Jones was succeeded in 1941 by Lester Granger, who had made his reputation in the 1930s by promoting black membership in trade unions and challenging racism by unions and employers. Central to Granger's leadership were his efforts to integrate the U.S. Armed Forces and the defense industry. He was also President of the National Conference of Social Work in 1952, and was subsequently elected President of the International Conference on Social Welfare.
Granger retired in 1961 and was replaced as Urban League Executive Director by Whitney M. Young, Jr., a social worker from Kentucky. That same year, an Urban League official announced that "being color-blind ... is no longer a virtue. What we need to be is positively color-conscious." Such were the earliest indications of the transition away from efforts to achieve equal opportunity, and toward the imposition of quotas and forced diversity as mandated by the affirmative action programs that would begin to flourish during the Nixon administration.
Young greatly enhanced both the funding and the visibility of the Urban League, increasing the organization's budget form $385,000 to over $6 million, and expanding the size of its staff from 38 employees to some 1,600. He made the Urban League headquarters available to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Phillip Randolph (and their allies) as they planned for the 1963 March on Washington, DC. Young's work also included a "Marshall Plan" for the war on poverty, and he received the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson in 1968.
Young was sometimes criticized for his failure to take more strident positions in the racial conflicts of the 1960s, but he claimed to prefer the role of negotiator and mediator. He began actively campaigning against the war in Viet Nam in 1969, arguing that resources needed at home were being diverted by the war. Young once explained that black people's "anti-white feelings" cannot be equated with white racism, because that would be "to equate the bitterness of the victim with the evil that oppresses him."
Young drowned while swimming off the coast of Nigeria in 1971. He was succeeded by Vernon Jordan, who had previously headed the United Negro College Fund and would eventually, two decades later, become an advisor to President Bill Clinton. Jordan expanded the organization's activities in the areas of equal housing, education, and minority business development. He also instituted the Urban Leagues's State of Black America Report.In 1977, the National Urban League changed the title of its CEO from "Executive Director" to "President."
During his tenure, Jordan demonstrated an inclination to blame white racism for even the most egregious black-perpetrated outrages. In the wake of a 1980 black riot in Miami, for instance, he suggested that the city's "white power structure" -- political and judicial -- had created a racial atmosphere in which refraining from rioting was "too much to ask of any [black] human being."
In 1981 John E. Jacob, former Director of the Washington D.C. and San Diego affiliates of the Urban League, took leadership of the organization, establishing several training programs for Urban League members and developing the "National Urban League Incentives to Excel and Succeed" program for inner-city youth.
Jacob ran the National Urban League until 1994, when he was succeeded by Hugh Price. Price argued forcefully for affirmative action; charged that black youths were unfairly treated by the criminal-justice system compared to white youths; and led the Urban League's opposition to the incarceration of youthful offenders in adult prisons.
The current President of the National Urban League is former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, whose tenure as Mayor was marked by considerable success in dealing with crime in the city and the reform of a corrupt police force, but was marred by charges of nepotism and patronage.
Over the years, Urban League reports and public statements have frequently condemned the United States as an intractably racist nation. For instance, one 1987 Urban League report claimed that black Americans were "besieged by a resurgence of raw racism, persistent economic depression, and the continued erosion of past gains." The report added: "Typical of the moral blinders donned by the nation in recent years is its indifference to the continued existence of racism and racial disadvantage that permeate our society and degrade national life and aspirations. Racism continues to live on, despite the pious pronouncements that we are now a color-blind society. It can be seen in the daily drumfire of local reports about racially inspired outrages that show old forms of racism thriving alongside the more subtle forms of discrimination that have become more popular." "White Americans," added the report, "remain largely ignorant of -- or indifferent to -- the plight of black citizens."