NEW ORLEANS — "I accet this job because I wanted it. It's the best white job in black America." David T. Kearns was accepting the gavel as the new chairman of the board of trustees of the National Urban League. He's president of Xerox Corporation and one of a dwindlying number of white executives who still work closely with black organizations.
"The key aspect of Urban League progress is the white and black partnership, both in the public and private sector," said Mr. Kearns in an interview here during the league's 73d national convention recently.
Talking with the verbal punch of a supersalesman, Kearns says, "Black workers are being squeezed in the transition of American industry from the assembly line to high technology. We need the Urban League-type partnership to get more blacks into jobs, more blacks into business, and more black entrepreneurs into mainstream contracts.
"The American dream can be best realized when all of us are included."
John E. Jacob, president and chief executive officer of the league, emphasizes much the same viewpoint. But he recognizes that it takes more than rhetoric to translate hopes into action around the country: "Interracial cooperation is the pillar of Urban League progress at all levels of operation -- loca, regional, and national. This cooperation works well at the national level , but is not always evident in local affiliates."
The 60-member National Urban League board inclues 25 whites and 35 blacks. The chairman is white, a tradition since the league was founded in 1910, and four of the top 10 national officers are white. Whites head three standing committees.
"We require all boards to be integrated, but it's getting to be more difficult to get direct white participation in local activities," Jacob says.
The National Urban League has been racially integrated since its founding. But the attendance proportions have been shifting. Whites were active participants -- as high as 20 to 25 percent -- during the 1960s and 1970s. Tthis year, it was a handful.
The Urban League is one of the few national black orrganizations committed to such high levels of white involvement. Another is the National Urban Coalition. Such groups as the Congress of Racial Equality may have started out integrated, but they are now all black. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's largest civil rights organization, seeks integration as a goal, but most of its white activists have dropped out.
Local Urban League affiliates are organized when a cross section of community people request a branch. An interracial board is formed and seeks the approval of the local United Way and the endorsement of the National Uran League. There is no set formula for a local affiliate. Currently some local branches are having problems maintaining white involvement, and it worries leagure leadership.
"My suspicion is there's a feeling among whites that civil rights is no longer a major priority," Jacob says. "On local boards whites often send their black counterparts or employees to represent them. There seems to be less need of the white community to establish a presence in behalf of equal opportunity and fairness.
The National Urban League look to the corporate level for more financial support with the sharp drop of federal grants since 1981. A white heads the league's new fund-raising effort, which is concentrating on 12 to 15 cities. It wasn't money, but it was a highly valuable donation that Xerox chief Kearns annunced at the convention. His company will donate 1,000 computers to the league's national program to upgrade the education of inner-city black high school youth.
Coy Eklund, the league's retiring board chairman (former chief executive officer of the Equitable Life Insurance Society of the US), speaks firmly but quietly when he says: "The National Urban League deserves our whole cooperation and best effort. It works for the well-being of the nation. Much was accomplished during my administration, but there is much left to do."
Incoming chairman Kearns hints of the urgencies of the moment -- reawakening interracial participation in the league -- when he remarks tersely: "I grew up in upstate New York, white and well off.I had the opportunity to succeed. I didn't know any blacks from the inner city."
As chairman of the board of trustees of the University of Rochester, Kearns is pushing for a collaboration with the league to set up a scholarship fund for minority students.
"We have to close the gap between rhetoric and reality," he says. "There is a tendency to see a few black churches, black mayors, and black coporate executive, pat ourselves on the back, and declare the racial problem solved. How can we come to such a conclusion when one ouut of two black teenagers can't find a job? Blacks should be able to become an astronaut as easily as they can be a maid or janitor."