By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Growing up in segregated New Orleans, Louisiana surrounded by an abundance of small Black businesses, Marc Morial, President of the National Urban League, noticed something all the owners had in common.
“They had their dignity and independence, and they were strong supporters of Civil Rights and Black empowerment because they had their independence,” said Morial, the closing speaker during the 17th annual A.G. Gaston conference, held virtually this year due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Morial was one of several national and local business leaders during the two-day conference that included forums and panel discussions and was held via LIVE YouTube stream.
Morial, interviewed during a Fireside Chat with Bob Dickerson, one of the conference co-founders, stressed the importance of making Black-owned businesses successful, much like the way Birmingham business legend Dr. A.G. Gaston did.
“I grew up in a town where I saw successful Black business owners, insurance company owners, my grandfather was a physician, my father had his own law business … that environment was an inspiration to me to watch and observe these men and some women own and have a sense of pride and community,” Morial recalled.
The Urban League president said he was among the first wave of Black students to attend elementary, middle and high schools in his town, “so I got an opportunity to live in a Black world and go to school in a white world,” he said. “I grew up with a perspective of race and how things were changing in the South but how the old South continued to hold on.”
He was heavily influenced by his family. Morial’s father, Ernest “Dutch” Morial was the first African American mayor of New Orleans from 1978 to 1986.
“My father’s career in both civil rights and politics was really an inspiration to me about how to live a life of purpose and I decided that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
Inspired by his father, the son began his career as a lawyer in 1985, establishing a private practice in New Orleans, serving as Louisiana State Senator from 1992 to 1994; New Orleans mayor from 1994 to 2002; President of the United States Conference of Mayors in 2001 and Urban League president since 2003.
“The organization is larger than it has ever been,” he said of the Urban League. “It provides more support to its affiliate networks than it ever has. It has carved a role for itself in economic empowerment with financial services, minority business, corporate community, job training and helping people get jobs… we’ve transformed ourselves. “
Morial also made a point about leadership.
“Learning about leadership and human nature in people is not something you just learn from the high and mighty, it is not something you learn from the most educated,” he said. “ . . .then you find some very educated people you can learn from too. The point is . . . that we can all learn from each other and everyone can be a leader, but great leaders can also learn to be followers.”