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Civil rights movement: the sequel

It's been more than 30 years since Whitney Young Jr. died, and his name is no longer particularly well known, which is a shame.

Young was the executive director of the National Urban League and one of the big four civil rights leaders of the 1960s, along with Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins and James Farmer.

He drowned at the absurdly young age of 49 during a visit to Nigeria in 1971. More than 6,000 people attended his funeral at New York's Riverside Church, and thousands more lined the streets of Harlem to view the funeral procession. Young had been a giant in the movement and it was widely recognized that his death represented a terrible loss.

What was not understood at the time was that an incredible decades-long slide into the horrors of violence and degradation for millions of African-American youngsters was already under way. More than three decades later we still haven't stopped the descent.

It is now absolutely normal in many circles for young black men and women (and, for that matter, little black boys and girls) to refer to one another as niggaz and bitches and ho's. Doing well in school is frequently disdained as a white thing. Doing time in prison is widely accepted as a black thing, and no cause for shame.

Few people are surprised to hear that a gathering at this party or that club degenerated into the kind of violence we used to associate with the OK Corral. Homicide, drugs and AIDS are carving the heart out of one generation after another, and suicide among blacks is on the rise.

Just before I sat down to write this column I happened to glance at an article that was on the front page of last Thursday's Boston Globe. Beneath a color photo of a black toddler, the article began:

"A 3-year-old girl remained in critical condition last night after a former high school basketball star allegedly ended a shouting match with a woman by spraying her Dorchester house with bullets, hitting the child in the back and severing her spinal cord."

When are we going to stop this?

I'm waiting for the mothers and the fathers, the aunts and the uncles, the older brothers and sisters to step forward and call a halt to the madness, to say: "Enough! This is not what we're about."

I mentioned Whitney Young Jr. because I had a conversation a few days ago with Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans who has just taken over as head of the Urban League and is hoping to raise its profile to a level comparable to the glory days of the Whitney Young era. He plans to lay out his agenda in a keynote address to be delivered later this month at the league's annual convention.

My suggestion: Hammer home the need to stop the self-destruction that continues to block the advancement of millions of black Americans.

I know there are serious economic problems, particularly the absence of good jobs, that are holding some people back. And I know about the abuses in the criminal justice system and the continuing plague of racism and discrimination. I've written reams about all of these things.

None of them are good reasons for parents to turn their backs on their children, for children to turn their backs on school, for a young man or a young woman to pick up a needle and plunge it into a vein, for a gunman to put a bullet into a rival's head or a neighbor's spine, for blacks to view themselves as niggers and whores, for entertainers to sing of the joys of rape and murder.

The paradox of black life in America over the past half-century is that so much real progress and such wholesale tragedy should have occurred in the same place at the same time. The task now is to reinforce the progress and bring the curtain down on the tragedy.

Young leaders like Morial (he's 45) and venerable institutions like the Urban League (it's 93) are perfectly positioned to begin the coordinated effort that's needed for this fight, which is the most serious to face black Americans since the demise of legal segregation.

Those who are looking to government to lead this effort are deluded. George Bush and Clarence Thomas will not be riding to our rescue.

What's required is nothing less than round two of the civil rights movement, the goal being to create a safe and constructive and nurturing environment in which all black Americans can thrive.

+ Bob Herbert is a New York Times columnist. +

New York Times News Service