It’s not too late for optimism in the fight for civil rights. But we must remain on alert

UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía and National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial talk about the dangers of our nation going backward in the fight for social justice.

In a compelling op-ed featured in Fortune, two visionary civil rights leaders, Janet Murguía and Marc Morial, subjects of Barbara Kopple’s documentary “Gumbo Coalition,” reflect on the challenges confronting America. Inspired by Martin Luther King’s vision, they underscore the critical need for moral leadership in today’s divisive political landscape.

Sharing personal experiences from their upbringing in a segregated America and acknowledging the progress made, they express concerns about recent setbacks, including the Supreme Court’s rejection of race-conscious university admissions. The duo calls for a renewed commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, urging leaders to overcome fears and champion values that fortify society.

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You can watch the “Gumbo Coalition” trailer here and stream the film on Max.

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We are eternal optimists. As civil rights leaders, we have to be. Our work on behalf of millions of underrepresented Americans demands it. Generationally, we’re products of Martin Luther King’s vision of hope and change, undergirded by a decade of landmark legislation during his short life. So it’s natural for us to live by Dr. King’s argument that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

That optimism is now being tested as never before in our lifetimes. We fear America is moving into a dark and divisive period, driven by political forces that seek to find tomorrow in yesterday.

At a time when we desperately need moral leadership, too many allies are cowed into silence, fearful of litigation and social media retribution. Less than four years after the murder of George Floyd strengthened America’s resolve to create an equitable multiethnic democracy, there is a haunting void of voices to remind us that diversity is a superpower–the force behind our nation’s rise to economic preeminence and vibrant democracy.

We both were born into a segregated America that was beginning to knock down walls, even as too many bricks stayed stuck. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants in Kansas City, Janet still tears up when she recalls the white college girl who refused to room with her. As a little boy in New Orleans, Marc’s mother made him “hold it” rather than use the “colored” bathroom at Sears–or take part in any other remnants of that city’s still-entrenched color lines.

But mostly, our lives were defined by doors opening. Marc’s father was New Orleans’ first Black mayor; Marc was the third. Janet ascended to the White House as deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton. Her siblings include four lawyers, a retired federal judge, and the current chief judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Marc’s sisters: a doctor, a judge, and a business executive.

We’ve been part of a growing leadership class that would have been inconceivable when we were elementary school kids in the ‘60s. Today, men and women of color are leading in Congress and statehouses, courtrooms, and C-suites. College graduation rates for Black and Latino Americans have soared since the ‘70s, but those numbers, like positions of power, still fall far short of whites.

Racism didn’t disappear with the bipartisan passage of the Civil Rights Act; the recent rise of white nationalism is a testament to that. But in recent years, our nation mostly celebrated diversity and inclusion. Corporate America came to embrace not only the morality but also the profit incentive of having a diverse workforce. A range of research demonstrated the results in higher profits and stronger appeal to next-gen talent.

At this pivotal moment, that progress is threatening to skid to a halt–or worse, send our nation backward. Marc’s mother, Sybil Morial, surprised us when she told Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple during the production of Gumbo Coalition, a documentary on our lives and work, that in today’s “contempt for Blacks and people of color, the venom is just as strong” as in the early ‘60s.

We see dark clouds of anxiety hanging over Black and Latino professionals–a shortage of optimism that we’ve never witnessed before. There is a palpable fear that their own progress–and that of their children–will be cut short.

These fears are being fueled by judicial actions like the Supreme Court’s 2023 rejection of race-conscious university admissions and the related rise of publicity-seeking conservative activists suing private sector organizations over their diversity policies. Business leaders privately admit to being fearful of speaking out to defend diversity, equity, and inclusion; they worry about being targeted by critics ranging from activist investors to anti-DEI lawyers fishing for a promising Supreme Court case.

Dr. King defined the fight for equality as “a struggle for freedom, dignity, and humanity.” He understood that opening the American dream to everyone would be a source of strength, not weakness–the pillar of a healthy society and democracy. Americans of all ages need to be reminded of those indispensable values, with this footnote: A child born today will be going to college in a country where Whites are the minority. A nation that limits opportunity for people of color will be stunted indeed.

Dr. King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech was about creating a vision for future generations. When Janet invited her modest Mexican-American parents to President Clinton’s Oval Office, her father thanked her boss for giving his daughter such an awesome opportunity. The president responded simply: “Mr. and Mrs. Murguía, you did it. You’re the ones who got her here.”

Today’s leaders need all the optimism they can muster to lean forward in these treacherous times. It’s not too late, but soon it could be.

Janet Murguía, the CEO of UnidosUS, and Marc Morial, the CEO of the National Urban League, co-star in Gumbo Coalition, now streaming on MAX.