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Urban League president to students: ‘Activism is a mindset’

March 1, 2016
Marc Morial (right), president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans, meets Aleem Griffiths '17 during a Q&A session at Douglass Leadership House before delivering the University’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Address on February 29 (photo by J. Adam Fenster)

Before delivering the University’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address, Marc Morial took some time to speak with students at the Douglass Leadership House. Morial, the CEO and president of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans, answered questions about activism, race, and the keys to leading a successful life.

Asked to reflect on what today’s students should take from King’s legacy, Morial said, “I think college students should recognize that fighting for, working for, and sometimes being activists and protesters for change is a time-honored American tradition.”

Morial argued that King’s life proved that young people have the power to affect history. Speaking of the early 1960s, Morial said, “We had Dr. King in his 30s. We had a president, John F. Kennedy, who was in his early 40s. We had [Civil Rights activist] John Lewis, who was in his 20s. We had any number of young people who were involved in civil rights and the Vietnam protest. And as young people, they challenged establishment thinking, they challenged convention and norms, and they changed the trajectory of a nation.”

Morial, who was elected mayor of New Orleans at age 35, added, “Age does not always equal maturity, and maturity does not equal age. Anyone with good sense, passion, and desire can contribute, be a leader, and bring about change.”

Morial recalled his time as a student activist at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received degrees in economics and African-American studies in 1980. “You don’t want to have a stereotypic view of being an activist, that the only thing an activist does is protest,” he said. “Protesting is a tactic. Activism is a mindset.”

He encouraged student leaders to strike a healthy balance between activism and academics: “Get involved, but I always say you don’t want your involvement to get in the way of your primary responsibilities as a student.”

When asked for advice on how to lead a successful life, Morial said: Never “cheat yourself” by not giving it your best. He added that everyone can learn from somebody else, and that students should have a dream that is both aspirational and realistic.

Morial also offered guidance on how to keep pursuing social activism after graduation. He said to remember to help those in need. “You never want to let your own success turn you into an insensitive person, or a person that lacks understanding or compassion. When you succeed, go back. You’re the role models,” he said. “When you succeed, do not forget the communities from whence you’ve come.”

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Category: Student Life