CHICAGO (AP) -- Ninety-nine years after it was founded to serve the needs of poor blacks in the nation's cities, the National Urban League's work is as relevant as ever, its President and CEO Marc Morial said.
On the eve of the civil rights organization's conference at Chicago's McCormick Place, Morial told The Associated Press that the country's economic crisis presents new challenges and new opportunities.
"Unemployment is rising, foreclosures are rising -- we have to fight back," Morial said. "We want to inspire people to fight back and give people the information they need to fight back."
Organizers are expecting up to 5,000 people to attend the convention, which runs from Wednesday to Saturday and includes a career fair that's free and open to the public.
On Wednesday night, Morial will kick off the conference with an address on the state of the organization.
Contrary to what some detractors have suggested, the election of the country's first black president hasn't suddenly made the National Urban League's mission less necessary, Morial said.
"With the election of George Bush, no one questioned whether conservative organizations were no longer relevant,'' he said. "No one questioned whether the National Rifle Association was relevant, even though a president was elected who shared their ideals.''
With President Barack Obama's election, "there's an opportunity for many of the issues to be on the table while we sit at the table," he said. "There's a chance to get results.''
The National Urban League was founded in 1910 in New York to help marginalized blacks who moved to the city to flee oppression in the South. Its mission hasn't significantly shifted since then, and rather than questioning the organization's relevance, people should be questioning what "civil rights" means today, Morial said.
"What civil rights means today is an expansion of opportunities when it comes to ... access to jobs, health care and an end to the achievement gap when it comes to schools," he said.
The Chicago conference will focus heavily on those issues, with speakers and panelists from Vice President Joe Biden to basketball star-turned-entrepreneur Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Oscar nominee Terrence Howard.
Biden is the featured speaker Friday for a session on building America's work force.
Morial said it isn't just those in cities who have benefited from the organization's work.
"In investing in urban communities, all of America will benefit," he said. "We are truly trying to push that big message."
On the Net:
National Urban League: www.nul.org