Urban League’s New Mantra: Economic Development

Published November 8, 2005

ORLANDO–Lance McCarthy wants the civil rights movement to change its course. While he says this new direction is just a tweaking of the one the movement has taken for over a century, others no doubt will see it as a sea change.

“We have to advocate, provide direct services, and engage in business development,” says McCarthy, head of the Orlando affiliate of the National Urban League. “This is the civil rights movement of the 21st century.”

One of the leading proponents of this new direction, called “social entrepreneurship,” McCarthy is not a lone voice. “This is an expansion and extension. The new cutting edge of the civil rights movement is economic development,” says Marc Morial, the Urban League’s national president.

In essence, Morial and McCarthy want to turn the Urban League–which, along with the NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee spearheaded the push for social and political changes in the 1960s–into a civil rights profit center. “We have to go from social services to business development,” McCarthy says. “We want to generate money for our affiliates while generating benefits for community.” Morial calls this the “double bottom line” of civil rights organizations.

This approach gives new meaning to the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and might cause a stirring in Booker T. Washington’s grave. At the turn of the 20th century, Washington–who built the Tuskegee Institute–was this nation’s most influential black leader. He argued that economic empowerment, not social and political advancement, should be the major goal of blacks.

“The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing,” Washington said in 1895 in his “Atlanta Compromise” speech. “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. … The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house.”

Washington’s approach was attacked by W.E.B. DuBois, a contemporary critic whose push for full equality became the taproot of the 1960s civil rights movement. More recently, black conservatives have pressed civil rights leaders to put a higher priority on economic development. But McCarthy, whose affiliate hosted a development conference last week, says social entrepreneurship is neither a concession to Washington nor a rejection of DuBois.

“We’re taking the best of both of their beliefs,” he says. “We’re going to help black businesses get access to capital, and we’re going to find ways for the Urban League to get an equity stake in some business ventures to grow our revenues.”

In fact, it makes sense for civil rights groups, long dependent on the philanthropy of others for their financial solvency, to generate their own income streams. This will give them greater freedom to press for a broad range of civil rights advancement unfettered by the guiding interests or fears of their benefactors.

And there is another important benefit to be derived from social entrepreneurship: the bridging of the ideological gap between black liberals and black conservatives. The well meaning among both of these groups should find hope for reconciliation in what the Urban League is trying to do.

“This is a strategy that furthers our mission,” Morial says of social entrepreneurship. It is also one that might mend the century-old divide between the linear successors of two black leaders who despite their divergent paths, had the best interests of their people at heart.

DeWayne Wickham writes weekly for USA Today. This article appeared in the November 8, 2005 issue. © USA Today