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U.S. Urban League Returning to L.A.

Rights: After a 20-year absence, the group will hold its annual conference here in what some see as a sign of the city's racial progress.

July 27, 2002|LISA RICHARDSON and JOHN MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The National Urban League, one of the nation's largest and most influential civil rights organizations, kicked off its 92nd annual conference this weekend, returning to Los Angeles after a 20-year absence.

The league, founded to promote economic self-reliance for African Americans, had planned to return in 1996 but pulled out to protest then-Gov. Pete Wilson's support for the anti-affirmative-action Proposition 209.

To some observers, the organization's return is a measure of racial progress in both the city and the state.

By Los Angeles' standards, the Urban League convention, with 10,000 delegates and visitors, is neither inordinately large nor unusually lucrative.

"But in light of history, its return is iconic," said Michael Collins, vice president of the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau. The bureau has been wooing the Urban League to return since 1996. "It speaks to a time when L.A. and California were in limbo.... Now what's obvious is that ... Siberia has changed."

What also has changed, said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles affiliate of the league, is that Wilson is no longer governor. "It's a different time in history, and enough time has elapsed to hold [the convention] here," he said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 28, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 345 words Type of Material: Correction
Urban League--In Saturday's California section, a caption for a photograph of two Urban League officials misidentified one of them. The person in the foreground, identified as John Mack, was actually Hugh Price, president and chief executive of the National Urban League. Mack, president of the league's Los Angeles chapter, was in the background.

As it stands, the National Urban League has decided to pull its 2003 conference from Cincinnati because of poor race relations there, according to the group's president, Hugh Price.

But race relations in the Los Angeles remain at a delicate point, Mack said, citing two issues: the videotaped beating of a black teenager by a white Inglewood police officer and L.A. Mayor James K. Hahn's refusal to support former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks' bid for a second term.

The videotape has refocused attention on the struggle of people of color against police brutality, Mack said, and African Americans are still "rebounding" from their disappointment in Hahn.

Mack rescinded Hahn's invitation to the annual gala of the league's local chapter in April, and said he pointedly did not invite the mayor to participate in or attend the national conference.

"He probably calculated that this is the early part of his tenure as mayor, and folks would forgive and forget," Mack said. "A whole lot of people are not prepared to forget; I'll leave it to my minister friends to forgive."

Hahn could not be reached for comment.

But the Urban League's primary mission is to forge business and community partnerships that lead to economic self-sufficiency--issues that have moved to the forefront in African American communities around the nation.

In its just-released State of Black America 2001 report, 60% of the African Americans surveyed said economic opportunity should be the primary focus of black organizations today. Sixty-seven percent said they wanted to own their own business.

The two primary obstacles to business ownership for people of color, however, are gaining access to capital and acquiring top-notch management skills, Mack said.

Economic concerns were cited as the biggest problems that respondents personally expect to face in the next 10 years, but they tied with discrimination as the most important problem facing black people as a whole today.

Concerns about police brutality and skepticism toward the criminal justice system remain significant issues: 43% of respondents said they believed that they had been stopped by the police because of their race. Forty-five percent said they worry about being a victim of police brutality, and three-fourths said they think the criminal justice system is biased against black people.

Mack noted that although the Urban League historically has been viewed as an African American organization, the Los Angeles chapter serves a diverse constituency. About 51% of the people it serves are African American, 30% are Latino, and the rest are Asian and white.

The five-day conference will include workshops and plenary session speeches by leading corporate, government and civil rights figures. There will be corporate exhibits, a job fair and health fair, and an African American vendor marketplace. About 360 teenagers from around the country will be housed in dormitories at UCLA and mentored by local businesses.

The conference theme touches on the goal of combining opportunity and equality to create one America--something organizers say took on a special meaning after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But patriotism and the sense of togetherness left African Americans and other people of color with an "unfinished agenda," Mack said. "We cannot have one America until some of these issues are addressed."

League President Price will highlight those unfinished issues Sunday in his keynote speech.

Friday, however, he noted the importance of keeping pace with the social and economic developments of the times. For African Americans, the 1800s were marked by the freedom revolution; the 20th century saw the equal rights revolution, in which gains were often made through the courts. The 21st century will be marked by a development revolution that centers around education and entrepreneurship, Price said.

"I don't think we've fully absorbed that yet," he said.

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