By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, on Wednesday closed out Birmingham’s 19th annual A.G. Gaston Conference with a message of ownership as the path to economic prosperity for minorities in America.
“You can’t close the wealth gap if a community is nothing but consumers, nothing but purchasers of goods and services. We must own,” said Morial, inside the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Complex East Exhibition Hall.
Addressing dozens of attendees, including Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin; William Barnes, president of the Birmingham chapter of the NUL, civic and local political leaders, Morial pointed to the Homestead Act, which was enacted in 1862 that gave white Americans cheap and expedient ownership of land, as an example of how ownership can lead to generational wealth.
Between 40 and 50 percent of white Americans can trace their wealth back to the Homestead Act, he said, while Black people in America weren’t afforded that same opportunity. “We cannot close the wealth gap in America if only 43 or 44 percent of Black Americans own their own homes,” Morial said. “We can’t close the wealth gap in America and claim economic progress if the homeownership rate for Black Americans in 2023 is almost exactly what it was in 1963.”
Developing and growing Black and other minority-owned businesses are another way to support economic prosperity for the marginalized groups, the NUL president said.
While “the propensity to start businesses” has increased among Black people in the U.S., less than 10 percent of Black-owned businesses have more than one employee, Morial said.
He urged “bankers and private equity people and hedge fund owners and treasury secretaries” to keep their investment dollars in America to build minority businesses.
“The emerging market is right here in the United States of America, with millions of small businesses owned by people of color that simply need access to capital, access to customers and access to contracts, and they will grow and build this American economy,” Morial said.
“We must build businesses and to build businesses, we must unlock the access to the capital track that is hindering the growth of these businesses,” he added.
Another step to assist in growth is for people to use their voting power at all levels of government to seat candidates who will help bring success to minority communities, he said. Those elected officials make decisions about everything from economics, to zoning, to “what water systems get repaired,” Morial said.
“Federal officials regulate banks, regulate food, regulate cars, regulate a whole host of things, and then make decisions on the distributions of trillions of dollars each year and where they go…This is important to understand the link of the public sector and its economic decision making as a part of the formula to close the wealth gap,” Morial said.
The policy and investment that Morial seeks, he said, is not “philanthropy and charity.” The rate of return on investing in greater homeownership and unlocking the path to capital for minorities is high, he said.
“I’m talking about business, capitalism, debt, capital and equity capital invested in the growth of these communities.”
Given the success of Gaston in the previous century wealth for minorities in places like Birmingham should be much farther along, Morial said.
“I think if Gaston were here, he’d say, ‘Look what I did when I had limited access to banks. Look what I did when there was not one Black elected official in Birmingham, Alabama. Look what I did in becoming a millionaire. You should be building hundreds of billionaires now with the new access and new availability that you have,'” Morial said.
Gaston, who died in 1996 at the age of 103, was an Alabamian business magnate. Born in Demopolis, Gaston went on to become one of Birmingham’s most successful businessmen, amassing a fortune worth more than $40 million across a number of ventures, including communications, real estate and insurance outfits, among others.
The A.G. Gaston Conference, first held in 2005, celebrates Gaston’s legacy and promotes entrepreneurship and financial success, particularly for Black residents of Birmingham. The Birmingham Times is one of the sponsors.
The National Urban League, founded in 1910, is a community-based organization with chapters across the country, including in Birmingham, founded to promote economic and social justice for African Americans.