Calvin Coolidge was President of the United States. The cost of a first class postage stamp was 2 cents. Henry Ford inaugurated the 40 hour work week at the automobile plant that assembled his model T. Robert Goddard fired the first liquid fuel rocket. And, the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the New York Yankees in seven games of the world series.
The year was 1926, ninety years ago. The same year a rabbi, a judge, a professor, three reverends, three doctors and several others formed the first board of directors of the Minneapolis urban league.
They were a diverse group comprised of blacks, whites, men and women, civic leaders, business owners, the highly educated and those lacking formal education—all dedicated to a single proposition: to provide assistance, support and advocacy for the growing black population of Minneapolis, which faced injustice and inequality, the northern version of Jim Crow.
The Minneapolis Urban League had no building—they met in a church basement. There was no paid staff—they relied on volunteers. There were no government contracts or foundation grants—only membership fees and individual support.
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But, the challenges they faced then are reminiscent of the challenges we face today. Then as now, blacks struggled with employment discrimination (discrimination finding a job and discrimination on the job). Then as now, educational advancement was limited by a lack of opportunity and inadequacy of resources. Then as now, blacks struggled with housing discrimination. Then as now, blacks sought safety and security in a sometimes hostile and threatening environment.
It’s tempting to marvel at the parallels between then and now. But we can’t marvel too long without noticing that the similarity of circumstances over the past 90 years begs the question, has there been any real progress? And, if we ask that question we must also ask, has the Urban League made a difference?
Has there been any real progress in 90 years? I suppose that depends on what you are measuring and what are your metrics for measurement. But it is undeniable that advances have been made on several fronts.
- Laws we take for granted now such as integration of the armed services were passed during this time.
- Laws were enacted prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment, education and public accommodations. In 1926, black people could not be served at a fine establishment like this hotel.
- We witnessed great court victories like Brown v. Board of Education, followed by the election of the first (some would argue the only) African American to the U.S. Supreme Court.
- African Americans have advanced in medicine, sports, literature, entertainment, media and every field of endeavor.
- Politics in particular has witnessed remarkable black achievement. From city halls (shout out to Sharon Sayles Belton) to state houses (shout out to Bobby Joe Champion, Jeff Hayden and Rena Moran) to Congress (shout out to Keith Ellison) and finally, in 2008, we elected our first African American president (shout out to all who voted for him).
- Just as significantly, the past 90 years have seen the emergence of a black middle class—something that barely existed in Minnesota in 1926, but now black people pay over half a billion dollars in taxes annually representing several billion dollars in annual purchasing power.
By most objective standards we would have to say things are better now in 2016 than before in 1926. But, if things are better, how come the struggle seems so similar and familiar? (Turn to someone nearby and say, “That’s a good question.” Now turn to someone else and say, “Hope he’s got a good answer.”)
Better is relative, of course. Black folk in 1926 certainly were better off than black folk in 1836. Those 90 years represented the difference between chattel slavery and second class freedom. So, it might seem natural that black folk today are doing better than their progenitors from 90 years ago.
But while things may be relatively better, for too many black folk today, better still feels bad. That’s their reality. It’s been a hard year for black people in Minnesota and a tough 90th year for the Minneapolis Urban League.