This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 26, 2012 - In the St. Louis Urban League’s second-floor board room hangs a colorful sketch of a graduation ceremony, an image that reinforces the agency’s motto of equalizing life’s chances through education and employment. In real life, however, fewer blacks, particularly males, are taking advantage of those chances by earning college degrees and climbing the career ladder.
That’s the one big regret James Buford mentioned recently when he discussed his 27 years as the league’s CEO and his plans to step down in the spring.
Buford is leaving the organization in better shape than he found it when he walked in the door in 1985. The St. Louis office enjoyed rapid growth under his leadership, becoming one of the top affiliates and the first to earn a five-star rating from the National Urban League. The agency’s budget has risen from $2.5 million a year to about $20 million, touching about 50,000 people through expanded programs, such as Head Start and weatherization services, housing and mortgage foreclosure counseling, and lifelines to at-risk high school students.
The chair of the league’s board, Debra Denham, welcomes the thought of Buford staying longer. She calls him “an extraordinary leader” who has grown the institution and is leaving it fiscally sound.
Buford himself feels it’s time to go, and he brushes aside whispers that often follow when people are caught off guard by an announcement that a prominent executive is stepping down.
“People ask if I’m sick,” he says, “then why am I stepping down?”
At age 68, he says, “I’m in good health.” He knocks three times on the wooden conference room table and then adds: “I’m not burned out. I’m not tired. I’ll keep busy, keep my mind fresh, and I’d like to have time to travel. But I also think it’s time to do something different.”
Schools vs. the streets
That “something different” includes an effort to address the discrepancy between real-life graduation ceremonies and the ideal one etched on the canvas in the conference room. He mentions attending many such ceremonies and usually seeing only a handful of black men in caps and gowns. He spoke at one such local event a few years and noticed quite a few black women getting degrees.
“I was glad to see that,” he says. “But in the entire class of about 200, I saw three black male graduates, and two of them were Africans.”
That’s not to say African Americans haven’t made lots of progress in a quarter century, Buford says, reeling off the names of numerous black achievers and black-owned companies in the areas of politics, business and law. While praising this progress and stressing that “I’m not retiring to go to work,” Buford says he intends to devote some of his time in retirement to figuring out how to reach and uplift African-American males who aren’t climbing a career ladder. He doesn’t envision himself as the leader of a new movement, but as an elder who will offer guidance to others committed to answering the question of why reality doesn’t imitate the art in the conference room.
He concedes that helping unschooled and unskilled black men find their way into the mainstream will take some doing. He suggests that some setbacks facing these men are not due to racism but are psychological and self-inflicted, cases of blacks who seem to have lost the will to rise above circumstances or have refused to walk through the doors of opportunity opened by previous generations.
One big challenge, he says, is that many such men don’t identify with services provided by traditional groups like the league. He notes that the agency offers plenty of educational programs, from Head Start for kids to advanced computer training for adults.
“Black women come for help,” he says. “But the men don’t come. They seek their fortune in the street. When you are not educated, you have to go to the streets.”
Second, he says, blacks in general are placing less emphasis on education. Each year the league publishes what it calls equality index data as part of its State of Black America report whose findings aired in May on C-SPAN. Among other findings, the report shows that slightly fewer blacks are earning bachelor’s degrees today than in 2005.
Buford recalls being part of an earlier generation when parents, grandparents and other elders laid down the law: “You are going to school, boy, if you are going to live in this house.” That advice, he says, isn’t heeded or offered as much as it used to be.
“If you asked me what of all things in my 27 years of service has disappointed me, it would be the regression of African-American people in regards to education,” he says.
Some blame the trend on hip hop culture or early pregnancies or dysfunctional families, says Buford while others believe “entitlement programs have taken away our aggressiveness.”
At any rate, he says education must be emphasized. While acknowledging that attending college is harder these days because the cost outstrips scholarships and other student aid, Buford says a degree pays dividends and is worth earning even if students have to take out loans to finance college.
Not to be overlooked, Buford says, is the notion by some Republicans that “if they cut out all of the entitlement programs, cut the budget, somebody is going to step in and take care of indigent people, or that they will take care of themselves.”
Buford says, “You don’t solve the problem by pulling the plug on them. Believe me; they know how to make money. But they won’t do it on the right side of the law. We need to capture those who can make it the right way.”
Buford's history at Urban League
The Urban League first established a presence in the region following deadly rioting in East St. Louis in 1917. A few months after the affiliate was set up, its building was torched, Buford says. The charter was then moved to St. Louis. A separate affiliate for St. Clair County was created again during the 1950s, but that unit has since been folded into the St. Louis operation.
Urban League affiliates have the flexibility to carve out their own identities. Some choose to be known for focusing primarily on social services and employment issues, while others take an active interest in civil rights as well. The group's overall mission is advocacy, coalition building, training and improved communication and understanding between races, Buford says.
Before taking the league’s top job, Buford had been director of a state program called Jobs for Missouri Graduates. As he settled into his new job, he recalled being visited by blacks who urged him to join the civil rights movement. This was years after the Jefferson Bank demonstrations during the 1960s.
“I told them I was not a leader, hadn’t proven myself, but they said that when I took this job I became a leader. They expected me to step out and speak out. I told them I couldn’t jeopardize my funding by attacking some of these people” who were the targets of civil rights protests.
In the eyes of some Jefferson Bank demonstrators, the league's position at the time “was one of standing behind and not rattling the cages and getting people upset,” said Buford.
Although the local league never became one of the area’s top voices for civil rights, Buford raised eyebrows by taking part in some protest activities. These included chartering two buses 17 years ago to the Million Man March, controversial at the time; and joining Al Sharpton in staging a blockade in 2009 of Interstate 70 to push for more construction jobs and contracts for blacks.
Though criticized locally for taking part in these events, Buford said getting involved was the right thing to do because both activities were about uplifting black men. The I-70 event led to creation of the Construction Readiness Training Center in Wellston.
Buford also generated controveresy when he accepted Mayor Francis Slay’s appointment to the city School Board at a time when the board was facing criticism from some community groups.
“Many militant leaders said I was in bed with white folks and doing what they told me to do,” Buford recalled, adding that he was aligned with and favored board members wishing to try to improve public education by “closing (underperforming) schools, firing principals and holding teachers accountable.”
None of these events, particularly his protest activities, have affected Buford’s relations with influential groups. His board memberships have ranged from U.S. Bank to the Metropolitan Sewer District, from the MUNY to the Missouri State University Foundation.
He counts Al Fleishman, co-founder of the influential Fleishman-Hillard public relations firm, as a mentor. It was Fleishman who encouraged Buford to join another exclusive group, the Missouri Athletic Club. It was a door through which Buford walked with reluctance until Fleishman reportedly told him: “When you open the door or knock down the door, then walk away, it’s vandalism. When you knock it down and walk through, it’s progress.”
In a way, that's a variation of Buford's belief that blacks "should be walking through all the doors of opportunity.”
Buford agrees that St. Louis hasn’t made as much progress as some other cities in terms of economic inclusion, and he thinks this region can learn lessons from cities, such as Chicago and Atlanta.
There are Chicago neighborhoods where blacks know not to be caught after dark, he says. “But when you sit down to do (economic development) deals in Chicago, ”all of the key racial and ethnic groups get a share of the pie, Buford says. “Blacks always get a little piece of it, so there was room for blacks to make (economic) progress. In other words, Chicago is more racist and segregated in some ways than St. Louis, but Chicago is also more participatory.”
For years in St. Louis, he says, that participation eluded blacks. “We weren’t at the table, but now we are.”
He says Atlanta also has benefitted from inclusion, becoming “the New York of the South by allowing all people to play leadership roles,” whereas some other southern cities, such as Birmingham, Ala., and Jackson, Miss., "are still fighting the Civil War. The point is that you can't keep walking if you have your foot on somebody else’s neck.”
In spite of his participation in the I-70 blockade, traditional civil rights protests aren’t Buford’s style. He prefers to do his talking in the halls of power, such as corporate board rooms.
“The Urban League is in a unique position of being a civil rights organization with a human service bent,” he says. “Our primary mission is human service.” But he says the organization is able to influence “people of power in this country” through dialogue and research that point to ways to solve social problems, he says.
He notes that churches helped to birth the civil rights movement but have not been as influential in St. Louis as they could be. He feels area congregations need to play a larger role when it comes to education.
“I don’t just mean speaking out on Sunday morning or holding press conferences, but getting involved and influencing people who can change funding and standards for schools.”
The league has yet to begin a national search to replace Buford as head of one of its most successful affiliates. He expects the search to attract lots of applications.
“We have no image issues, no lawsuits, 13 consecutive years of clean audits, and an outstanding management team,” Buford says, adding the his successor “won’t have to come here to fix anything.”