Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said employers are increasingly using measures that have nothing to do with job performance that disproportionately limits the ability of African-Americans to gain employment.
"I need you to make sure that your state has a law that says very clearly that you cannot use the fact that somebody has been arrested as a reason not to employ them," she told convention delegates. "A mere arrest tells you nothing."
Sounding more like an evangelical preacher than the lawyer that she is, Arnwine drew loud applause when she said, "You need a state law that says to employers that credit checks have nothing to do with your ability to work. If your credit is bad, it's because you don't have a job. Get real."
Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, said the private sector needs to assume a larger role in reducing Black unemployment, which stood at 12.7 percent when Obama took office and rose to 13.7 percent in June, twice the White employment rate of 6.6 percent. According to the Department of Labor Statistics, more than 2.5 million Blacks are unemployed.
"Ever since President Obama has been in, there has been an increase in jobs in the private sector, but Black unemployment has not decreased. Why? Because we work [disproportionately] in the public sector," he explained. "So while the private corporations who now don't have to deal with us because the Supreme Court is knocking down affirmative action, they are not hiring us. The public sector is being cut down with agencies and programs – we're being minimized in the public sector."
But Sharpton said Blacks have the economic leverage to force companies to hire more African-Americans.
"We need to renegotiate Black America's understanding – we called them covenants – with the private sector," he said. "The court can say all it wants about affirmative action, we have the consumer power to say to companies that do business in our communities that, 'You must have targets of doing jobs in our community.' They can't make us buy from those who won't hire us."
Jesse Jackson said that all levels of government should also be held accountable.
"In Chicago, there are 81,000 vacant lots," he stated. "They cut public housing and they foreclosed on private housing. They've cut public transportation, cut trauma care. Cut public schools. There is no present plan to bring us out of that isolation. And I think the government has some obligation."
Especially a government and nation as rich as the U.S., according to Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League.
"We've got a $15 trillion economy in the United States of America, the largest economy in the world," he stated. "And it is unacceptable – Dr. King talked about it and Whitney Young talked about it – for there to be these vast oceans of poverty amid all the plenty. So many are doing well and so many people are left behind."
He said many U.S. tax and trade policies are misguided.
"American public policy is focused on job creation," Morial said. A significant part of it is focused on job creation in the wrong places. For example, there's a huge infrastructure rebuilding program that the people of the United States are paying for. The problem is it's for the reconstruction of and rebuilding of Bagdad. It's for the reconstruction of Kandahar...Your and my tax dollars are being invested. That could be and should be redirected to Philadelphia, to Baltimore, to Boston. Secondly, United States trade and tax policies are encouraging job creation. But they are encouraging job creation in China, in India and overseas."
Closer to home, far away from Iraq and Afghanistan, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hoop Caucus, said that unlike civil rights veterans, many youth are not eager to participate in marches.
"My generation just doesn't want to march for marching's sake," he said. "We got to march for a reason. Trayvon is one reason. Voting rights is one reason. We much push for policy."
Proving Yearwood's point, a young member of the audience gently questioned the value of marching.
"I'm concerned about those who are tired of marching who have never marched," Jackson said. He noted that all demonstrations were undertaken with specific goals in mind and marching is simply a means to an end.
"You say why march about voting?" he asked, rhetorically. "Well, that's how we got it the first time. We did not get voting rights at a cocktail sip, trying to have racial harmony sessions. We got it by organizing and galvanizing and the only way we are going to make changes is by organizing and galvanizing."
Morial said recent changes in federal student loan programs are threatening the existence of some historically Black colleges.
Recalling a recent conversation with Norman Francis, who has been president of Xavier University in New Orleans for 45 years, Morial recounted, "He said that the effect of the changes to the student loan program cost the member colleges of the United Negro College Fund $50 million."
Morial said he heard similar stories from other HBCU presidents.
"I spoke the other night to the president of Lincoln University [in Pennsylvania]. This was a stunning piece of information. He said, 'I'm going to lose half of my freshman class. They cannot come back.
"There is something deeply flawed when young people who have gone to high school, graduated from high school, gotten admitted to colleges and universities, successfully completed one year and cannot go back even if they have A's and top-level scores. They can't go back because of money."
Morial said if the Federal Reserve can lend money to banks at zero interest rates, similar accommodations need to be made to save HBCUs.
In response to a question from a convention delegate about whether there should be a national boycott of Florida, Sharpton said he would support a boycott if it were "directed, disciplined and focused." He said it should be carefully planned, saying, "You got to hurt who has hurt us."
Jesse Jackson was less nuanced.
"I would make the case that when Stevie Wonder and those artists say let's boycott Florida, boycott it," Jackson said to loud applause. "If we can boycott South Africa and bring it down, we can surely boycott Florida and bring it down."
The death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American shot to death by George Zimmerman, was mentioned throughout the panel discussion as some leaders discussed how best to strike down Stand Your Ground laws, like the one in effect in Florida that imperils the lives of young Black men in particular.
"We are now right back where we were 50 years ago, where states are superseding our federal civil rights," Sharpton said. "Trayvon Martin had the civil right to go home. State law gave Zimmerman the legal right to say, 'I can move without any resistance and kill him.' The federal government must supersede that."
Jesse Jackson, quoting the first Black Supreme Court justice, added: "As Thurgood Marshall said, the law enslaved us, the law freed us, the law segregated us and now the law is leaving us unprotected."
(For more information on preserving your voting rights, go to the Election Protection Website, http://www.866ourvote.org/ or reach them by telephone, 866-OURVOTE.)