Marc Morial is the current president and CEO of the National Urban League, the nation’s largest historic civil rights and urban advocacy organization. He served as the highly successful and popular mayor of New Orleans, as well as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He was previously a Louisiana state senator and a lawyer in New Orleans with an active, high-profile practice. Marc is a leading voice on the national stage in the battle for jobs, education, housing, and voting rights equity.
Welcome to EMERGE Everywhere. I’m Jennifer Tescher, journalist turned financial health champion. As founder and CEO of the Financial Health Network, I’ve spent my career breaking down silos by engaging with innovators across industries, and now, I’m sharing those conversations with you. Meet the forward thinking leaders challenging the status quo and unleashing creative new ways of improving financial health by seeing their customers, employees, and communities in 3D.
Systemic racism has contributed to economic inequality in this country, whether it’s levels of household wealth, home ownership rates, or levels of investment in minority communities. How do we then move towards economic justice for all?
From his term as the 59th mayor of New Orleans to his nearly two decades leading the National Urban League, my guest today, Marc Morial, has been one of the country’s most influential civil rights advocates. In this moment of extreme partisanship and divisiveness, his lifelong focus on coalition-building and on bringing people together is more important than ever.
Marc, welcome to Emerge Everywhere.
Hey Jennifer, congratulations on the show, on the podcast. And thanks for your continuing friendship.
I appreciate that. I want to dive right in. I’d love for you to share with our listeners some perspective on the history and mission of the National Urban League, because the organization’s been around for a long time and there are numerous civil rights organizations out there. But the Urban League has always been really focused on the economic side of the equation, the work that Dr. Martin Luther King really left unfinished when he was cut down before his time. And that just feels super relevant right now, given the moment we’re in. So talk a little bit about the focus on economic justice and self-reliance and why that’s so important at this moment in history.
Appreciate the question. And let me just take you back to 1910. And as we say, we are a 111 years young historic civil rights and urban advocacy organization. So in the early 20th century, you had these incredible movements of people taking place. One movement you had was immigration, primarily from parts of Western Europe and parts of Eastern Europe, Ireland and Italy and Western European countries, fleeing political repression, economic violence, all forms of great difficulties, coming to the shores of the United States, looking for opportunity. Then you had this internal movement of people called the Great Migration. It was a movement of African-Americans from the rural South, from the agricultural economy of the South, moving away from the rise of segregation and Jim Crow, moving away from the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and domestic terrorism against Black people, moving away from a rural economy to the promise of the industrial North, the industrial cities, the Chicagos, the Detroits, the New Yorks, the Bostons, the Baltimores. And I could go on.
It was in New York that two people teamed up, George Edmund Haynes, a disciple of W.E.B. Du Bois, a newly-minted social worker from Columbia University, happened to be African-American, and Ruth Standish Baldwin, a suffragist leader, a white woman, and in the literature of the times, an heiress. And they got together and they created, from three fledgling organizations, the National Urban League. The purpose was to provide support and a voice to newly arriving migrants in New York City. We grew from there to Detroit and Boston and many cities beyond because the challenges of migrants, Black migrants in New York City, was the problem that Black migrants faced in every community along the North. And our focus was economic opportunity, jobs, quality housing, educational opportunities for children. And that was our central focus.
In the 1960s, Whitney Young, who joined us in 1961, joined us from Atlanta, where he had been a friend and ally of Martin Luther King during his days as dean of the School of Social Work at Atlanta University. He made the National Urban League a full partner in the emerging civil rights coalition, which included the NAACP and Dr. King and Dorothy Height and John Lewis and A. Philip Randolph, the great labor leader, and Roy Wilkins, and a number of others who formed that core of what was known as the Big Six. And since that point, Whitney Young was transformative, he sharpened our focus on economic issues by creating a skillset and a competency within the organization to affect economic policy, workforce development, corporate diversity and EEO policy, education, minority business, housing and community development. And that fundamental model is what we’ve embraced in the transformation I’ve had the privilege to lead over the last 15 years, which is to reclaim our role as one of the leading voices on economic issues, economic justice, economic empowerment, economic parity, as an important element of civil rights.
Now, I’ll say this. You said it, and Jennifer, you’re so right. The unfinished business is economics. The data shows that the economic, if you will, disparities that exist in this nation are greater than the health disparities, greater than the education disparities, even deeper than the criminal justice system disparities which exists. And, and from the Urban League’s point of view, we believe that it is the underlying driver of continued poverty, racism, and disparity. So confronting it, dealing with it, and addressing it is so significant and important for a broader set of issues. And that’s what leads us to where we work today in these areas in policy and programs, and thought leadership.
You are really built for this moment in many ways.
We’re built for crisis and we respond in crisis. Our workforce development programs expand, our home buyer education and housing counseling programs expand. We’re involved in relief efforts related to COVID, whether it’s providing food. But no, we’re built for crises. We’re built for challenge. We’re built for change. If the National Urban League did not exist in America, someone would be trying to invent us.
So I know I’m always going to get a history lesson when I talk to you, which is one of the reasons why I love talking to you. And the other thing that I find so interesting is that there are lots of things I’m sure you’re hoping the new Biden administration is going to tackle, but one of the things that you have been steadfast in your support for is the Marshall Plan for America’s cities, this signature concept that the Urban League has been advocating for now for many, many, many years.
Many, many, many years, sort of tailored off of the Marshall Plan after World War II, and it was first proposed, I think, by Whitney Young, as you mentioned, back in the mid ’60s, and you’re still carrying forward that work today. So tell us a little bit more about what this Main Street Marshall Plan looks like. And in particular, why do you think it’s important that we unite behind policies that drive economic recovery, not only for black people, but for urban communities and all low income Americans?
Well, you remember the Marshall Plan, which was a plan put together by the United States to help rebuild Europe after the devastation of World War II. And the premise was that Europe was a friend and a partner of the United States, and that for them to be economically strong would benefit the United States. So a broad commitment was made, and it had a dramatic impact on post-World War II Europe and the rebuilding of the infrastructure and the business and job creating engines of Western Europe.
Today, and you mentioned Whitney Young, he came out with his domestic Marshall Plan in the ’60s. We’ve renewed it. It’s a bit of a domestic Marshall Plan 3.0, and called it the Mainstream Marshall Plan, really in response to the hyper focus of the post-’08/’09 recession on rebuilding simply the banking institutions of America, which they needed to be rebuilt, but the premise was probably inaccurate, that if you rebuilt that infrastructure alone, that it would lift all boats in the economy.
Our point of view is that America’s cities, big and small, have been under-invested in in the last 20 years. The housing stock’s been under-invested in, the physical infrastructure has been under-invested in, the school infrastructure has been under-invested in, and now we see the effects in a very stark way. So the Mainstream Marshall Plan said invest in these communities and they will be a huge rate of return, not only for these communities, but for American society, because cities are the economic drivers of the American economy.
And so we propose a plan of investment, two trillion on physical infrastructure, roads, bridges, rail systems, airports, water systems, housing, broadband, community facilities. Two trillion on human infrastructure, workforce development, education, human capital needs that we have as a nation.
So it is a thought process to do a big investment, the view being that it’s going to create a significant rate of return. And we’ve been championing this and we continue to champion it with a requirement and a call for there to be a focus on minority business participation and involvement, making sure that there’s workforce development opportunities for communities of color, for returning citizens, for women in the job creation that would result. And we are working now to press those issues with the Biden team, the National Economic Council, the DPC, new Secretary Buttigieg, who will play a large role in designing the infrastructure plan as well as across the board with members of Congress.
You know a lot about infrastructure, because as you mentioned, you were the mayor of New Orleans.
When you invest in infrastructure, the value of housing goes up. Wealth is created when you invest in infrastructure. Real estate taxes tend to increase, and it has a profound impact.
I sort of piloted this approach when I was mayor of New Orleans. One of the first things I did when I came into office is to put together piece by piece a $1 billion infrastructure program. And I learned when I took office is that the city had borrowing capacity at very reasonable interest rates, significantly higher than they had borrowed. And that several of the external agencies, the airport, the transit authority had those, too, the school district, too.
So we assembled a number of pieces together and said, “Let us, as a city government, invest in rebuilding the physical city. Let’s invest in expanding the port.” We built an arena. We upgraded the airport. We built streets, parks, pools, libraries, because it is what? It is the tool I had in my hand. I couldn’t affect GDP and interest rates, but I could direct local capacity into public infrastructure. Well, it worked. It had a dramatic impact, and I think that’s the theory I want people to understand about infrastructure investment. These are permanent investments. These are permanent. We still have bridges and schools and parks that were built by FDR’s New Deal in cities, still standing, still working, nearly 100 years later.
Interestingly enough, you wrote a book that was published just last year, called The Gumbo Coalition, and it shares leadership lessons from your time as an attorney and serving as mayor. I’ve read some of it. I haven’t yet finished it. I love it. You sort of ooze through the pages.
What I want to talk a little bit about is you talk about bringing together diverse perspectives to make progress in a house divided. I personally love that idea, because really one of the main focus of this podcast is bringing people together from across sectors to understand that actually everything is interconnected and that we’ve got to work together if we’re going to solve some of society’s biggest problems. And in a very profound way, President Biden is facing this very challenge in uniting a very divided country.
So tell us what the gumbo coalition means. Tell us the story of where that came from, and then tell us a little bit about your approach to networking coalition building, because it’s something that you will long be remembered for.
Sometimes it’s easier to bring together people than it is to bring together politicians. And when we look at the divided politics, so much of the focus is on Washington DC. And I think the system in Washington is built for division. It’s a system that power is conferred by virtue of which party simply has the most seats, right? And that’s a system that exists. At the local level in many places, you don’t have a system like that. You have factions and you have divisions, but sometimes just a different type of process.
You don’t have at the local level as many, except in probably the very largest of cities, as big of a professional class of influencers. Lobbyists and trade groups and interest groups. You have a lot more average people who are at the table in conversations and discussions. My thinking now is, hey, we have to unite people. We have to unite people maybe outside of the public policy realm, to push on people inside of the policy realm. It’s striking to me that the COVID bill that Joe Biden’s put together with generate so much partisan opposition because I just look at the polls and I see the 70% approval ratings in the polls. That to me represents a pretty broad consensus because in American politics and amongst the population, you do have a caucus that says “hell no” to everything. Sometimes 20, 25%, but I think that Biden has sounded the right tone, which is I’m going to try to find a consensus, but I will not be bogged down. I try to find consensus, but I’m not going to allow people to pretend to bargain when they really aren’t bargaining. I think it’s a challenge.
I took the approach in New Orleans that I pulled a lot of people to the table to find big solutions on housing, on infrastructure and even on public safety, which was a divisive issue, but part of it meant me pushing and shoving people to give and take a little bit and sometimes people had to absorb things they didn’t necessarily want. It’s a local situation. I had a strong political hand at the time. That had a lot to do with it, but it was predicated on, we need to do things big. We cannot do things big unless we are together. We have to find win-wins. We have to identify those things that we can agree on and not get bogged down on what we disagree on. Part of it I think was also, there was a tremendous amount of what I call good fake leadership. Business community, faith community, a new generation of elected officials that had been elected mainly in the ’90s at the time in New Orleans, a little bit younger, who wanted to make a difference and they hadn’t been around so long to be jaded. I wonder if in America today, this is about building a coalition, understanding that unity is not unanimity.
What you want to do is build as broad a coalition amongst the people as possible and bring that to bear on the electives. I think that the system in American politics is such that we have almost evolved to a parliamentary style system where you win, you govern, if you don’t win you play loyal opposition. That’s kind of a parliamentary system. We have never seen ourselves as a parliamentary system. The founding fathers never envisioned political parties. They didn’t envision that people would divide themselves, but look, political parties emerged in the first term of George Washington when Jefferson and Madison exited the Washington cabinet over disagreements, over alliances with France and debt payments and a whole host of things, but they didn’t envision it. We have evolved to where we are today. We have to live with what we are today, but I like to say to people, let’s build a coalition of people as broad as we can and recognize somehow that maybe the politics is sometimes a little out of touch with what the people want. People want a COVID relief bill. I think they want it to be large. I think they want infrastructure. I think they want minimum wage. I think they’ll live with some variations in between. I don’t think they want to dumb down the whole situation to make it so little that politicians cheer and people suffer.
You come by this coalition building, this gumbo style coalition building, if you will, honestly. You are New Orleans through and through. Your late father led the New Orleans branch of the NAACP before becoming the city’s first black mayor, before you. Your mother, huge civil rights advocate, producer of documentary and author. What did they say about crossing the ditch? You talk about, in the book, crossing the invisible ditches that segregate people. I talk about silo busting. You talk about ditches, which I love. What have you learned from your upbringing? How do you cross the ditch?
My parents were very determined, my brothers and sisters and I, they were on the front lines of ending segregation and they had gone to all segregated schools and they wanted us to go to integrated schools. They pushed us into environments and sometimes it was tough and sometimes it was hazing and issues and challenges and name calling. They kind of pushed us into that. Essentially you end up growing up in multiple worlds in the 1960s and the 1970s and so you understand that which divides, but you also understand sometimes that which can unite. I think some of it is more instinctive. I believe in always trying to have some discourse and dialogue. Always understanding. Look, if we talk and we don’t come to some consensus, we’ll fight, but I never want to and I thought about this in local politics and I asked myself, would this work more at a national perspective because I’m principal and I’m a strong advocate and I believe what I believe, but also inaction is the enemy of progress. There are times when incremental-ism is all you have. There’s time when boldness is what you can achieve.
I think we’re in a time of boldness. I think we were in a time before of incrementalism because I think that the problems are so deep. I think the challenges are so severe. Who would have imagined just a year ago that we would be where we are a year later, with COVID, the economic downturn, the challenges around race? Who would have imagined? In fact, if you and I had this podcast and I predicted it and said we’re going to have the worst health crisis, we’re going to have this. You’d say, man, that guy’s been reading something, he’s been doing something. His head is off his swivel, right? We’ve lived in a century, the 21st century, of the unexpected. 9-11, great wars, great weather events. We elected an African American president, then we elected a president who was recognized by the public as a racist, one behind each other.
Not an accident.
Not an accident. We’re into this situation where we have COVID and it comes out of the blue and then we get into debate whether it’s real or not. These have been challenging times for us and I think those of us who work where we work, we have to work together. We have to push, we have to show, but we can’t be tricked. I was taken by January 6th. When I first turned on television for a split millisecond, I said, this is like a movie. I turned up and said, what is this? I was stunned by it because it’s not… For all of the tension and challenges we’ve had as a nation, we’ve never seen anything like that in our life and I think many of us, it’s easy for people to think that that was not possible in the United States of America.
I said, I can see how these despots emerge. These totalitarian regimes emerge, how it’s devoid of any value, it’s all about raw power. We were at a point now where we really have to double down on the protection of democracy. The right to vote, the right to express ourselves, a loyalty to the truth, some loyalty to transparency, the value of equity, justice and fairness. We have to embrace these values because some of what we have seen is an actual threat to it in the quest of power.
We’re never going to get the kind of economic justice that’s needed without that. Mark, thank you so much for joining me today.
Jennifer, thank you for having me out. Let’s do it again.
This has been EMERGE Everywhere, a Financial Health Network production. I’m Jennifer Tescher, and I’d love to hear your ideas for future guests and your reactions to the show. You can connect with me on Twitter @JenTescher. If you liked this episode, please review the show and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. To learn more about the work and research we do, please visit emerge.finhealthnetwork.org. See you next time.