Marc Morial on Jesuit education, civil rights, and college students

By Rita Buettner

When Marc Morial delivers his lecture, “The 21st Century Civil Rights Movement” at the 21st annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Convocation on Thursday, Jan. 16, he will make his first visit to the Loyola University Maryland campus.

But the president and CEO of the National Urban League expects to feel right at home. After all, he benefited from Jesuit education himself—as a graduate of Jesuit High School in New Orleans and Georgetown Law School.

Loyola magazine had the opportunity to speak with Morial before his visit to campus.

How has your Jesuit education shaped your life?

“I have the AMDG going all the way. The very founding of the Jesuit order and the commitment to all of the institutions of education is a dual commitment to academic commitment and social justice. Clearly the education I received at Jesuit High School in New Orleans prepared me and is something that has stayed with me.”

What was your Jesuit High School education like?

“They taught us Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides. We learned about all the great philosophers. Many of their thinkings underpinned the American Constitution. It was in high school that I first took courses in public speaking. They had a freshman course in public speaking, and then they had an advanced public speaking class. I won the medal for the best public speaker in the class. They were really great classes … and it really, really helped me obviously throughout my career to understand the value of teaching the art of oral presentation.”

What issue should young people be concerned about today?

“I think what’s important is this concept of globalization—everything it means and why it has to be more than a slogan. Globalization means understanding multiculturalism here at home. It means understanding geo-economics and geopolitical trends, and understanding global perspective, global forces.”

What advice would you offer to today’s college students?

“Young people need to be very attuned to the concept of giving back, particularly if they have had the benefit of having a higher education. They’re going to be in leadership positions across the board, and they have a good sense of a lifelong commitment of service.

“Young people also need to be civically engaged. And to be civically engaged, obviously means needing to be active and involved in their community, and to go beyond being engaged on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. That’s a great way to connect, but that is not the only way. That needs to be a tool of civic engagement and education. Young people need to be voters and active participants.”

What is your perspective on college students today?

“Number one, they are highly focused and have a lot of anxiety about getting through college. Number two, they have a lot of anxiety about getting a job in a career of their choice. They are very, very serious about that. I think that they’re more compassionate and concerned about others than people give them credit for, but because the current generation has lived through a recession, and they’re in their early 20s, they also grew up as children in a time of great prosperity. The hardship may be affecting them in ways that we may not realize.”

What would you hope students would take from their college educations?

“I think every student needs to learn how to read and comprehend, write and communicate well, and have a great understanding of history and current events and the world around them. I also think that everyone must have an understanding respect and familiarity to use technology, even if you’re not going to be a technologist.”

When you became president of the National Urban League 10 years ago, could you have foreseen all that would happen during that decade?

“I would have never imagined Katrina, Rita, the bank crisis, the foreclosure crisis, the jobs crisis. I don’t think people could have seen the technological revolution—the Blackberry and the handheld email device, you couldn’t send video on a computer. Facebook, Twitter, none of these types of things were even on the horizon.”

How can technology become a civil rights issue?

“The technology divide in some ways is tied to the economic divide. The people over at Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile are not giving away iPhones. You cannot be connected to the Internet for free. There’s a combination of information and money. You have a computer in your house and a cellphone—those are monthly expenses that you didn’t have 10 years ago. You may have had a landline, maybe a little cellphone. Now you have a sophisticated computer and a handheld device. The benefits are tremendous.”

“There is also the class divide, the income divide, the rise of poverty. We’ve seen a 180-degree reversal from where we have been moving as a country. People don’t realize that we have stopped changing direction. That is a threat to economic competitiveness, growth—the rising divide, the grand divide—and it’s gotten worse because of the recession.”

How can we solve that?

“A lot of people deny that it exists, that it’s a problem. And then only if you can get to the understanding that it’s a problem can you get to a discussion about solving the problem, about public policy, and setting wages. It’s about affordable access to education and training, and paying jobs abroad.”

Do you think young people are aware of civil rights issues?

“I’m concerned that some think it’s a battle that was fought and won, and that we’re talking about new battles only and not yesterday’s battles. The events of the 1960s and 1970s may be for a younger generation ancient history. Time moves so fast. That was then, this is now. That’s why it’s important for the generation to understand history.

“If you were to tell someone from 1995 or 1996 that within five years, the United States is going to be attacked in a way more devastating than Pearl Harbor, most people would have said, ‘Man, you’re living in the movies too much.’ People would have said, ‘Get outta here.’

“So what that reminds us is that you’ve got to continue to be vigilant, with national security and economic security or civil rights and equal justice.”

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