Newest Civil Rights Voice Doesn't Talk Separatism


America's newest civil rights leader wasn't born poor like Rep. Kweisi Mfume. He didn't march with Martin Luther King Jr. like the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. He doesn't favor black separatism like Louis Farrakhan. And he never did time in prison like the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.

Hugh B. Price, the new president of the National Urban League, was born into prosperity as the son of a Washington physician. He graduated from Amherst College and Yale Law School. He says nice things about the civil rights movement's traditional Jewish allies. And he racked up his courtroom experience as an attorney, not as a defendant.

Unlike Dr. Chavis, who has shaken up the NAACP in the past 15 months by leading gang summits, courting Minister Farrakhan and saying that American racism poses a bigger problem in 1994 than in 1964, Mr. Price has adopted the traditionally diplomatic Urban League tone.

Someone once said the Urban League was the civil rights "State Department" while the NAACP was the movement's "War Department." Mr. Price and Dr. Chavis seem to prove that maxim.

"We must not let ourselves and, especially, our children fall into the paranoid trap of thinking that racism accounts for all that plagues us," Mr. Price said last week in his keynote speech to the Urban League's annual conference in Indianapolis. "The global realignment of work and wealth is, if anything, the bigger culprit."

"I fully understand the instinct to separate when we are incessantly under economic siege," Mr. Price said. "Even so, it's suicidal economically to become so bitter that we isolate ourselves from others. America is a robustly multicultural society. So is its labor market. . . . We deny this reality at our -- and our children's -- peril."

While the difference in tone between Mr. Price and Dr. Chavis is considerable, it shouldn't be surprising. Black American thought has always been diverse, with integrationist and nationalist strands, and differing emphases on political rights and economic development.

Both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored ++ People and the Urban League, the nation's most durable civil rights institutions, were founded in New York by racially mixed groups, the former in 1909, the latter a year later. Since then they have followed parallel tracks.

The NAACP, under leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois and Roy Wilkins, has pressed largely for blacks' political rights, in the courtroom and on the streets.

The low-profile Urban League, led by Whitney Young Jr., Vernon Jordan and others, has focused more on African-Americans' economic development, cultivating corporate and government contacts.

Today, the NAACP's 64-member board is dominated by older black Southerners, headed by a Greenville, S.C., dentist, and includes just a sprinkling of whites.

The Urban League's 62-member board, led by the chairman of Time, Inc., includes many representatives of Fortune 500 corporations and is strongly interracial.

Both civil rights groups depend heavily on corporate and foundation support. Both are running financial deficits.

The two groups have picked new leaders that reflect them.

Dr. Chavis, 46, a North Carolinian and a preacher, came out of the civil rights movement. Mr. Price, 52, a Washingtonian and a lawyer, was a senior Rockefeller Foundation official and once wrote editorials for the New York Times.

"The Urban League has always been one of the more conservative civil rights groups, by its very nature. It always pretty much depended on help from the business community," said Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis activist. "Most people forget that when it started, the NAACP was viewed by people as a radical organization."

Now with many of the NAACP's old political battles won, but 1 of every 2 African-American children still born into poverty, Dr. Chavis is repositioning the NAACP to accent economic issues. He seeks to bolster its membership by recruiting black youth. He has stirred a pinch of economic nationalism -- the notion that blacks should do for themselves and largely by themselves -- into the mix and included Minister Farrakhan in the conversation.

Mr. Price, whose first day on the job was July 5 (he replaced John E. Jacob, who left for a job in private industry), has outlined three areas of focus for the Urban League:

* Give black children growing up in the inner city the "academic and social skills to be successful," partly by getting the black middle class to finance the development of less fortunate African-Americans.

* Enable those children's families to become "economically self-sufficient" by pressuring government to create jobs to replace the manufacturing slots that have disappeared from American cities.

* Encourage "racial inclusion" so that African-Americans can participate fully in the mainstream economy.

"For all our suffering, we cannot become so fixated on our problems that we ignore our commonality of interest with others," Mr. Price said. "What constructive purpose is served by driving deeper wedges between races? Of course we must root out any vestiges of racism. But let's not wallow forever in real or perceived grievances lest we become Bosnia someday."

None of Mr. Price's message is alien to what Dr. Chavis says he is trying to achieve. But the tone is different.

"They will agree on basic kinds of things. Their differences are more likely to be tactical," said Alvin Thornton, a Howard University political scientist.

One measure of the NAACP and Urban League leaders' compatibility will come next month as the NAACP holds its second black leadership summit, including Minister Farrakhan, in Baltimore.

Mr. Price said in an interview that he has not decided whether to attend.

"Certainly there's no institutional aversion to attending," he said. "We are sister organizations in the struggle for social, racial and economic justice."

Could Mr. Price, who defends the Urban League's Jewish supporters and preaches "racial inclusion," work with Minister Farrakhan, who has a history of anti-Jewish remarks and a black separatist philosophy?

"There are very severe ideological differences that would make collaboration difficult," Mr. Price said. But, ever the diplomat, he said Minister Farrakhan's Nation of Islam provides a "valued service" in combating drug pushers and operating feeding programs in some black communities.

"I hope we can move beyond the high-decibel distrust between the races," he said. "I just hope Americans across religious lines and ethnic lines can get on with the business of making society work."

?3 James Bock is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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