During his term as president of the National Urban League, John E. Jacob (born 1934) pushed for the social and economic progress of African Americans and other minority groups.
"America will become a second-rate power unless we undertake policies to insure that our neglected minority population gets the education, housing, health care and job skills they need to help America compete successfully in a global economy," John E. Jacob, president of the National Urban League, told Martin Tolchin in the New York Times. Reiterated in his annual address to the organization, titled "The State of Black America," Jacob's efforts are often controversial; he repeatedly attacks what he views as the indifference of the American political system to the plight of the disadvantaged. During the 1980s, he called for the withdrawal of billions of dollars from the military budget to be used for training minorities to become skilled laborers. Jacob commented to Ari L. Goldman in the New York Times, "America has only one hope of entering the 21st century as a world power and a global economic force. That is its ability to achieve racial parity and to make full use of the African Americans and minorities it has so long rejected."
Born December 16, 1934, in Trout, Louisiana, Jacob is the son of Baptist minister Emory Jacob and his wife Claudia. Emory eventually moved the family to Houston, Texas, where he worked in carpentry and construction to supplement the small income he received from the church. "I grew up so poor," Jacob recalled to Luix Overbea in the Christian Science Monitor. "Two rooms and a kitchen for seven people. No gas. No electricity. We did our homework by the light of a kerosene lamp and bathed in a washtub in the kitchen." He told Jacqueline Trescott in the Washington Post that his parents' "very rigid middle-class standards," including "southern Baptist principles—no drinking, no dancing, no card playing, no movies on Sunday," saved the family from the "syndrome of poverty." "The overriding principle," Jacob related to Trescott, "was 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you… . ' You had to do well in school; you had to work. I can never remember not working. You could not create any problems for anybody, at any time. So we grew up straight, upright, good, well-mannered, smart poor kids."
In 1957 Jacob received a bachelor's degree in economics from Howard University in Washington, D.C.; an E. E. Worthing scholarship made college possible. After spending a brief period in the U.S. Army where he achieved the rank of second lieutenant, he returned to Washington. His first job, as a post office clerk, was secured several months later with the intervention of the office of Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. Jacob experienced frustration that his employment opportunities were limited because of his race. "I hated the work [in the post office]," he told Trescott. "I went to work mad, I came home mad."
Two years of postal work preceded Jacob's employment as a public assistance caseworker with the Baltimore Department of Public Welfare in 1960, a position he held while pursuing his masters degree in social work at Howard University. During his five years with the department, Jacob was made child welfare supervisor, a post he considered his most difficult. He explained to Trescott that when taking a child from a parent, you "just have to hope you are right, that what you are doing is right for the child and the parent, at least for the child." In 1965, two years after Jacob completed his masters degree, he was appointed director of education and youth incentives at the Washington Urban League.
Established Leader in His Field
After the turbulent summer of 1967, when racial tensions resulted in urban riots across the United States, Jacob oversaw the creation of Project Alert in the nation's capitol. Rioting in Washington was confined to one day, and 34 persons were arrested for disruptive acts, including arson and looting. The Washington Urban League responded by becoming a liaison for the community; youths from the ghetto were recruited as leaders to bring slum residents' problems to the League, which then directed families to appropriate social services. By 1968, when Jacob was named acting executive director of the Washington Urban League, he led his organization's participation in several other development programs, including the Ford Foundation-funded Operation Equality and the government-funded Project Enable (Education and Neighborhood Action for a Better Living Environment).
During the 1970s, Jacob served as the head of several levels of the National Urban League, including director of community organizing and training for the League's eastern region and director of the San Diego Urban League. In 1975, he returned to the east coast as president of the Washington Urban League and in 1979 was appointed executive vice-president of the National Urban League. The League was renowned for its passage of progressive acts against racial discrimination throughout the 1970s, particularly the 1972 federal Employment Opportunity Act. The Supreme Court upheld the legality of the organization's affirmative action programs, which required those corporations seeking federal contracts to integrate their workforce under specific guidelines involving racial quotas for hiring and promotions.
When National Urban League chief executive Vernon Jordan, was seriously injured in an assassination attempt in 1980, Jacob became acting chief executive of the League. Jordan retired in 1982, and Jacob was subsequently elected to the presidency of the organization by unanimous vote. By this time, the politics of the country had changed under Republican President Ronald Reagan, who was opposed to affirmative action and mandatory busing of school children to desegregate public schools. Under the Reagan administration, several policies, including cutbacks in federal social programs, increased the strain on the financially beleaguered National Urban League. Jacob was outspoken in his objections to the administration, citing in particular its appointment of a conservative majority to the Civil Rights Commission; the result, he felt, would be a weakening of the agencies that protected civil rights. The 1980s also marked the Supreme Court ruling that valid employment seniority systems take precedence over the protection of minority jobs in Firefighters v. Stotts. Additionally, suits filed by the Justice Department against public employers who used the affirmative action tactics of quotas and specific numerical goals increased significantly. Jacob responded by joining other civil rights groups in their boycott of the hearings on employment quotas by the Civil Rights Commission.
Called for Domestic Marshall Plan
During the early 1980s, Jacob formulated a new philosophy for the National Urban League that was similar to the 1947 Marshall Plan initiated by the United States to assist the recovery of European nations after World War II. Aid was sought from private sectors to facilitate entry-level job training programs, and Jacob proposed the League give direct assistance from its own resources to poverty-stricken minorities and whites, including housing and job placement. In addition, he suggested the federal government institute full employment through substantial public works and job training programs, and he joined other civil rights groups in supporting economic boycotts against private industry to induce corporate funding for developing markets and jobs for racial minorities.
Jacob is an adherent of self-help, particularly as advocated by black churches, civil rights and social welfare agencies, and community-led groups. He outlined various strategies—tutoring and counseling to raise Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, a comprehensive teenage pregnancy prevention plan, and a male responsibility program for fatherhood and parenthood—for addressing contributing factors to the cycle of poverty in black America. Key issues he cited were the plight of unwed, adolescent mothers who often dropped out of school and entered welfare roles, the nearly half of all black households headed by single women, and black victims of black crime. Jacob added voter registration, education, and drug control to the League's agenda of top priorities, issues to be addressed through the nineties. "What has distinguished us organizationally, is that in addition to our civil rights portfolio," Jacob told Ebony, "we have always been a direct service organization." Reasoning that blacks should attack their internal problems themselves, he pointed out in Ebony that the Reagan years "may wind up being a blessing." Jacob reckoned, "As a people, we must remember that we are not as weak as we have allowed ourselves to be painted and we are not as strong as we can be."
During the presidency of George Bush—in the late 1980s and early 1990s—Jacob persisted in advocating an Urban Marshall Plan. Inspired by the lessening of tensions between the Eastern and Western worlds, he proposed that funding for the $50 billion project to train minority workers be transferred from the military budget. Although Bush declined an invitation to address the National Urban League when he was campaigning for the presidency, Jacob was encouraged by Bush's civil rights record in Congress. In 1989, Jacob praised Bush's administration to Julie Johnson in the New York Times for the "fresh winds of openness it has brought to our Government." When Bush was receptive to Jacob's domestic Marshall Plan proposals, Jacob welcomed dialogue with the new administration, but Bush's veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990 soon soured the relationship. In the 1990s, Jacob faced repeated resistance to affirmative action in the courts and legislature, where conservative politicians, white and black, spurned government intervention programs in favor of self-reliance.
Warned of Economic Suicide
While acknowledging that self-reliance is a factor in social reform, Jacob postulates that self-help alone will not deter racial discrimination against blacks and other minorities. He asserts that government funding is necessary to provide fair competition at work and school and argues that the costs are justified to produce skilled laborers, capable of global competition. "Job discrimination is not only a civil rights issue—it's a form of economic suicide," Jacob remarked to Goldman, expressing his hope that the American work force will admit more Hispanics, women immigrants, and African-Americans.
Winner of numerous honorary degrees and social service awards, Jacob, as head of the National Urban League, oversees the operations of one of the largest black organizations in the country. The League—founded by black social worker George Edmund Hayes and white philanthropist Ruth Standish Baldwin in 1910 as the Committee on Urban Conditions among Negroes—began as an organization aiding black laborers from the South who migrated to northern urban areas at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1911 the Committee combined with two other groups under the appellation the National League on Urban Conditions among Negroes. The National Urban League, an abbreviation of the original League's name, became the organization's designation when affiliates were chartered. Over the decades, the League has grown to encompass a national staff of more than 30,000 salaried workers and non-salaried volunteers and a national governing board made up of 60 trustees chosen from various fields, including churches, corporations, universities, youth groups, labor unions, and civic organizations. Funding from businesses, individuals, and nonprofit organizations, including the United Way, provides the large sum of money required to operate the National Urban League and its affiliates.
A longtime proponent of change, Jacob revealed his aspirations for American society in an address delivered at a conference on public policy and African-Americans. As quoted in Vital Speeches, the activist reminded the forum of the words of the late Episcopal Bishop of Washington, John Walker, who said, "It is God's will that we live together in peace. It's God's will that we grow beyond our racial animosities and that we must commit ourselves to continue that work." Jacob added, "That strikes me as a credo that will serve us well as we go about our business today, tomorrow and into eternity."
New Challenges Ahead
Jacob decided to announce his retirement in 1993 from the National Urban League. He stayed on as president and CEO of the organization until 1994 when accepting the position of executive vice president of Anheuser-Busch. His new responsibilities include working on the company's marketing strategies in minority and foreign markets and educating the public about Anheuser's other companies and theme parks.
Further Reading on John Edward Jacob
"Climbing Jacob's New Ladder." Black Enterprise, September 1994, pp. 128-31.
Christian Science Monitor, July 19, 1985; July 22, 1986; January 15, 1987; July 31, 1987; August 2, 1988.
Ebony, March 1982; July 1989; August 1990.
Jet, February 6, 1984; February 10, 1986; February 1, 1988;August 22, 1988; October 18, 1993.
Newsweek, May 7, 1984; January 28, 1985.
New York Times, December 8, 1981; July 28, 1985; July 23, 1987; January 25, 1989; August 7, 1989; January 10, 1990; July 30, 1990; June 4, 1991.
Time, May 14, 1984; May 27, 1991.
USA Today, November 1988; March 1991.
Vital Speeches, October 19, 1989; January 15, 1990; May 1, 1991.
Washington Post, January 19, 1982.