WASHINGTON - Saying their cultures are linked by common triumphs and similar struggles, leaders of the nation's largest civil rights groups urged unity across race and ethnicity yesterday at the National Urban League's 95th convention.
"We need to master the art of pooling our resources and working together," said NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon , making his first substantive public address since being named to lead the Baltimore-based organization this month. "We need to do so by any means necessary. It's a 20th-century phrase, but we need a 21st-century application."
Gordon was joined by National Urban League President Marc H. Morial and Janet Murguia, president of the Latino advocacy group National Council of La Raza. The leaders' conversation kicked off the first full day of a conference that included a speech by Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, workshops on economic empowerment and a discussion tackling what panelist the Rev. Al Sharpton called the "epidemic" of joblessness and incarceration among black males.
About 5,000 people are expected through Sunday at the conference at the Washington Convention Center.
While Gordon, who will officially report to work at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on Monday, would not reveal his agenda for the civil rights group, he said minorities too often complain about what they don't have. Instead, he suggested, civil rights organizations should build upon the successes established decades ago.
"In the '50s and '60s we sought power, we were loud about it," he said. "And today we have it. We many not have as much as we want, but we have it. ... I come from the school of self-reliance. I'm not one to ask for anything. Power is not something people give you, power is something you take."
Murguia criticized the media for overplaying the rift between Latinos and African-Americans after U.S. Census figures released in 2003 showed Latino population growth had outpaced blacks'. But she admitted that the different minority groups too often work in isolation from each other.
She said that last month, when Los Angeles elected Antonio Villaraigosa, the city's first Latino mayor in more than a century, voters saw beyond traditional boundaries.
"There is more that unites us than divides us," Murguia said.
Morial suggested that such a coalition would be important during the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.
While the leaders said it's too soon to tell where Roberts stands on civil rights issues, Gordon said the NAACP will be monitoring the process to gauge whether the hearings are thorough.
In a later news conference Morial said was designed to display "a united front," the leaders applauded new census figures revealing that between 1997 and 2002, the growth of minority-owned businesses outpaced the national average.
The census found that while the number of businesses nationwide increased by 10 percent over the five-year period, black-owned businesses increased by 45 percent, to 1.2 million. Hispanic-owned business jumped 31 percent, to 1.6 million. And Asian-owned businesses grew by 24 percent to 1.1 million over the same period.