LONG before affirmative action became government policy, the National Urban League was among the organizations actively helping African-Americans from the South find work in the North. Today, 85 years after its founding, the Urban League is still a staunch advocate of self-reliance. But with affirmative action under assault, the politically moderate group is marshalling its resources, calling for a state boycott, and stepping forward with more liberal black groups to defend state and federal race- and gender-preference policies.
Affirmative action is ''about inclusion, not about quotas,'' says Urban League president Hugh Price. ''It's about making sure that people who are qualified and who have long been shut out of the opportunity structure have an opportunity to participate and to perform.''
Mr. Price, whose group held a four-day conference here that ended yesterday, may be fighting an uphill battle. Many Republicans, including presidential candidate Gov. Pete Wilson of California, say the need for race preferences has passed and that the 30-year-old programs now tend to discriminate against qualified whites.
Following Governor Wilson's lead, the University of California Board of Regents voted to end affirmative action as it applies to admissions and hiring at all state-run universities. Now a movement is under way in California to put the question of affirmative action on the ballot in 1996.
The National Urban League leadership acknowledges that affirmative action, as it now stands, won't exist for long. President Clinton announced last week that some modifications need to be made. ''Mend it, don't end it,'' he suggested to Congress.
One way to mend it, says Ken Carter, vice chairman of the Dallas Urban League affiliate, is to ''consider abolishing affirmative action in the contracting area, where there have been 'fronts' and people taking advantage of the system.''
TEENS attending the Urban League's youth conference also expressed alarm at the trend to abolish affirmative action, particularly the programs that relate to college admissions.
''The black community has benefited greatly from these programs,'' says Jantzen Swann, a teenager from Charlotte, N.C. ''If they're eliminated, I believe it would, in the process, also eliminate opportunities for minorities.''
Like the more liberal National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League responded to last week's Regents decision by pulling the league's 1996 conference out of Los Angeles in retaliation. Price also urged other convention planners to back a boycott.
Yet as the debate intensifies, Price says he does envision a day when race- and gender-preference programs won't be necessary.
''If our institutions become instinctively inclusive and look broadly across the spectrum of people who are qualified,'' he says, ''and if that behavior really locks in, you don't need affirmative action.''