Delaware business leaders find special opportunity in Urban League

SamBy Sam Waltz
Founding Publisher

Delaware business leaders should plan to meet at 1pm Friday June 5th at the Theatre N in the Nemours Building, 10th and Orange Streets, to hear US Rep. John Lewis speak on “50 Years After Selma: Civil Rights in America.”

Attendance is free, but registration is required via This is a special Town Hall meeting hosted by US Sen. Chris Coons in concert with the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League (MWUL).

Cong. Lewis, a civil rights icon who was at Selma 50 years ago, is expected to touch on recent events of a racial nature in Baltimore, Ferguson, New York and even Dover, and how they fit into the legacy of America’s civil rights movement.

Leaders of the business community have a special opportunity to play a role in this generation’s civil rights struggles, and I choose the word “opportunity” today over the word “responsibility” for a special reason, although I frequently use the word “responsibility” in such discussions.

To many of us active in business and civic leadership, “responsibility” = “should” = the “heavy hand” of Big Government dictates. It’s about being compelled as a part of the agenda of someone who has won the favors of government and its mechanisms to require business to do certain things. And, as business leaders, we have virtually a knee-jerk response against increasing government intervention in the private sector.

Business is, and always has been, a force for progressive change, albeit not uniformly and not always in an absolute sense, but in the perspective of its self-interests in local communities. And business leaders have been among the community’s creative problem-solvers, with the gravitas to design and lead the necessary changes.

Hence, when the Urban League was founded in Delaware about 15 years ago by  leaders like James G. Gilliam Sr., Mayor Jim Sills and (now) Bank of America executive Dr. Antoine “Tony” Allen, it was founded with a strong volunteer or opportunity ethic. It was founded as a vehicle for collective action, where leaders can join together to move the community forward.

It didn’t take long for Delaware’s VIP Opinion Elites to “sign on” to the Urban League’s good work, and even leaders like then-Treasurer Jack Markell became involved and soon was a leader of the group, which later featured a variety of leadership from across the community.

Race is an issue that continues to vex America 150 years after Mr. Lincoln’s victory in the Civil War kept the Union intact and effectively ended what he called “that peculiar institution” of slavery. But the legacy of slavery even 150 years later remains a stain, fueled in part by the prejudices that sustained themselves for the decades since.

Even Lincoln, my own lifelong hero, knew race relations would never be easy in America, which prompted him to champion “colonization” back to their African homeland for freed slaves well into his Presidency. <For some fascinating reading, Google the American Colonization Society, find the articles and books, you’ll discover a long-overlooked chapter of America’s pre-Civil War history.

It turns out that Lincoln totally underestimated the scope of the issues with which society would grapple.
The good news is that those active in “Civil Rights era” of the 1950s and 1960s — when I came of age — saw many of the “structural barriers” to full participation in America society be brought down by acts of law. Following that were other accommodations, ranging from affirmative action to open housing to Community Reinvestment that ended “red-lining” in lending.

Solutions to today’s issues often will yield less to such mammoth acts of government and more to the cooperation and good work among people who care, alongside empowerment of some of the disadvantaged. And, frankly, as a long-time fan of our local Urban League, and its leaders, that’s where business comes in.

Although the Urban League, like other Civil Rights groups, occasionally will employ “the heavy hand” of government, its primary modus operandi is about empowerment with many of us working together.

Issues of interest to it are education, housing, economic empowerment, health and quality of life, civic engagement, and, of course, civil rights. The Urban League of today — headed by Deborah T. Wilson — believes that every child should have access to a good education, and every family should be able to build wealth, that equal access should be available to all, and that multiracial coalitions advance the interests of “people of color.”

Tell me, who can disagree with that?

I have no official role or connection with the group, but I’ve attended its meetings for years, including its Lions and Legends event this month that celebrated individuals – including academic, business and civil rights leaders – who have made a difference.

Join me, and others, at Theatre N (although I’m told they may need to move it to the Grand Opera House to accommodate a strong turnout) on Friday, June 5, to find a way to be part of the solution.  ♦

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