It humbles National Urban League (NUL) president and CEO Marc H. Morial to hear his name mentioned in the same sentence as baseball legend and civil rights icon Hank Aaron. The accomplished organizational leader stood in high cotton alongside basketball Hall of Famer/entrepreneur Oscar Robertson, United Farm Workers founder Dolores Huerta and Atlanta Braves vice chairman John Schuerholz as one of the recipients of this year’s Hank Aaron Champion for Justice award from the Braves as part of the sports franchise’s fourth annual Heritage Weekend.
Heritage Weekend acknowledges baseball’s influence on social change and the Civil Rights movement. A stellar athlete born and raised in New Orleans, Morial, the product of activist parents, sums up how his multi-faceted commitment to humanity connects to Aaron’s legacy. “[Hank] is a legend,” says NUL’s eighth leader in the organization’s 95-year history. “He’s a hero and a role model. To be able to be recognized along with great Americans [like Oscar Robertson and Dolores Huerta] is super special.”
A great listener and orator, Morial, 58, joined his fellow Champion for Justice honorees on a panel, addressing their contributions to combating injustice and achieving equality for all people. Morial was taunted and catcalled as a child by other neighborhood kids in the midst of integrating an all-white school in his middle class neighborhood in New Orleans. The celebrated attorney and former Louisiana senator emphasized to youth in the audience the importance of being productive citizens and acknowledging the contributions of previous generations of activists/athletes of color to racial and social injustice.
Spending time teaching law courses at Xavier University, the alumnus of University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University believes being an effective leader anywhere is a culmination of elements. “You’ve got to have a Ph.D. in common sense and a certificate from the school of hard knocks,” proclaims Morial, the former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“The practical dynamics are as important as anything you can learn in school or through experience. You’ve got to have a practical sense of basic understanding. Understand the suites and the streets.”
As 59th mayor of New Orleans and the son of the city’s first African-American mayor, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, Marc earned a reputation as one of the city’s most accomplished, youngest and most effective mayors in history. Under his two-term tenure, Morial was instrumental in overseeing a decline in the city’s crime rate, increased youth programming and reigniting the economy.
Becoming NUL’s chief executive in 2003, Morial revamped the empowerment organization’s “State of Black America Report.” Morial spearheaded programs like the youth empowerment workshops that emphasize employment readiness and entrepreneurship in hopes of growing small businesses in five American cities. NUL even earned Better Business Bureau (BBB) certification under Morial’s guidance.
Still drawing inspiration from his civil rights forefathers and in-house genealogy, Morial remarks about what makes his service-oriented activism significant. He offers his personal definition of a champion. “A champion knows how to get knocked out and get back up,” says the elected chair of the U.S. Census Advisory Committee, to which he was appointed by President Obama.
“A champion knows how to perform at the highest levels when the heat, stress and the pressure is greatest. A champion is one that knows how to play by the rules and win. When they win, they don’t have a big head. They have the humility of success.”
Having a sense of obligation and commitment to knowing history are what fuels Morial to constantly strive to empower all people, particularly African-Americans. He admits that he often turns on the television and pays close attention to negative imagery and commentaries to propel his urgency to fight. On the panel, he turns his attention back to young people, encouraging them to pursue their education.
Drawing once again from his wealth of experience, Morial believes his passion for serving others is rooted in being an astute listener and having unconditional love for humanity. “I’m listening when people don’t think I’m listening,” says Morial, a self described “long runner who knows how to sprint and last.”
“You have to love people and be centered in loving people. Be focused on being the best in helping everyone else be the best that they can be. When you lead an organization, it’s not just about you. It’s about the team, but teams need glue, leaders, motivation and energy. Those are the most important elements for working in civil rights and social justice in the 21st century.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.