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Marion Wright EdelmanMarian Wright Edelman
Marc Morial


  Marc Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League

To Be Equal: Celebrating 20 Years of Upholding a Tradition as “The Voice of Black America”

“Show me a person who is full of prejudice, and I will show you a sick, unhappy, fearful individual who is not going anywhere and who is not growing. People don’t shut other people out; they fence themselves in.”

—Whitney M. Young, Jr.


It was 20 years ago this week that I humbly assumed the responsibilities of leadership of the National Urban League—one of which is the honor to author this very column, To Be Equal, established by the esteemed Whitney M. Young, Jr.

The column shares its name and takes its inspiration from Young’s first full-length book, published on New Year’s Day, 1964, in the wake of what Young called “the year of the Negro Revolution,” a year that saw thousands of children, marching through Birmingham, Alabama, attacked by police dogs and blasted with firehoses; the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi; Gov. George W. Wallace’s Stand in the Schoolhouse Door at the University of Alabama, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, and the deadly bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.

The first To Be Equal column to be published in New York’s Amsterdam News was headlined, “How Much Are Negroes Worth?” Young recounted his conversation with “a middle-aged white housewife” who declared she harbored no prejudice against Black Americans but could not comprehend the push to desegregate schools. “Her arguments against school integration, it turned out, were directed against sending her children to slum schools,” Young wrote. “But supposedly there is nothing wrong with sending Negro children to slum schools.”

The last To Be Equal column published under Young’s byline ran three weeks after his tragic March 11. 1971 drowning in Nigeria and consisted of excerpts of his various speeches. The last column he authored, also published after his death and headlined “Old Story, New Beginning,” concerned his efforts as part of a special commission tasked with updating the recommendations of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission.

“The Kerner report’s sound recommendations have been ignored, and concerned citizens are going to have to put some muscle into their principles if this nation is to survive,” Young wrote. “The Kerner Commission recommended, among other things, greater concern by private citizens, and it’s good to note that at a time when many private groups are simply throwing up their hands and refusing to become involved, at least one national organization has devised an imaginative new program.

That national organization was the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the imaginative new program was the National Committee for Commitment to Brotherhood, formed to support the work of the National Urban League, NAACP, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The first To Be Equal to be published after Young’s death was authored by Harold R. Sims, who served as the National Urban League’s acting executive director until the appointment of Vernon E. Jordan. Appropriately, it was a tribute to Young headlined “Nation Mourns A Great Leader.”

“Whitney Young was a man who transcended the boundaries of race, nationality, and ideology,” Sims wrote. “He was a man who formed a human bridge between the rich and the poor, the white and the black, the conservative and the liberal. Labels simply don’t apply to such a universal man.”

Each of Young’s successors has continued to publish To Be Equal, and it has been my honor to uphold the tradition as he intended it to be, “the voice of Black America.”

—June 1, 2023


Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President Emerita, Children's Defense Fund

ChildWatch: “I See Myself and the Books Give Me Hope”

Amanda Gorman, the eloquent 25-year-old Harvard graduate who was our nation’s first ever National Youth Poet Laureate, recently became one of the latest authors to have her work banned after a Florida parent petitioned to have The Hill We Climb, the book version of the poem Gorman read at President Biden’s inauguration, removed from the elementary school section of a Miami-Dade County public school library. The parent, who incorrectly attributed the book to Oprah Winfrey, said in her complaint the poem “is not educational and have indirectly [sic] hate messages.” The parent also wrote she believed its function was to “cause confusion and indoctrinate students.”

In response, Gorman posted a statement saying she was “gutted” by the book’s removal:

“Book bans aren’t new. But they have been on the rise—according to the [American Library Association], 40% more books were challenged in 2022 compared to 2021. What’s more, often all it takes to remove these works from our libraries and schools is a single objection. And let’s be clear: most of the forbidden works are by authors who have struggled for generations to get on bookshelves. The majority of these censored works are by queer and non-white voices.” She continued: “I wrote The Hill We Climb so that all young people could see themselves in a historical moment. Ever since, I’ve received countless letters and videos from children inspired by The Hill We Climb to write their own poems. Robbing children of the chance to find their voices in literature is a violation of their right to free thought and free speech.”

Gorman noted that her own publisher, Penguin Random House, has already joined PEN America and others in a lawsuit in Escambia County, Florida challenging book restrictions like these, and urged her readers to visit PEN America to learn more and support their challenge. Florida has made many recent headlines for these kinds of bans, and the current climate of hostility towards diversity and inclusion under Governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis has just led the NAACP to warn against travel to the state. But none of us can be complacent about the growing numbers of book restrictions in school districts and states across the country, including those proposed by uninformed parents who suspect any book written by a Black author or portraying Black history or culture is likely a “hate”-filled threat to their own children’s worldview.

The Children’s Defense Fund has long championed the opposite belief. Hundreds of college-aged servant leaders are preparing right now for training to teach at CDF Freedom Schools® summer programs for children in grades K–12 at sites across the country. These programs are centered around the CDF Freedom Schools’ research-based Integrated Reading Curriculum featuring high quality books reflecting a wide variety of cultures, races, and experiences. For some children, it’s the first time they’ve seen books with characters who look like them and share some of the struggles in their lives. It’s hard to be what you can’t see, and just as children of color need to be able to see themselves in the books they read, all children need to be exposed to a wide range of books that reflect the true diversity of our nation and world as they really are. As one CDF Freedom Schools scholar said, “I see myself and the books give me hope.”

We believe experiences like these should be encouraged for all children. During National Reading Month the CDF Freedom Schools program created a list of “Banned Books We Love,” a five-week curriculum of excellent diverse books for every reading level from K through 12th. Now is the time to add some of them to the summer reading list in your home this year! Children everywhere deserve the chance to find and choose books that will allow them to see themselves, understand what they have in common with others, and give them hope. As Amanda Gorman also wrote, “Together, this is a hill we won’t just climb, but a hill we will conquer.”

—May 26, 2023



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