04/07/2014 01:53 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2014

A Time for Action

People often come up to me and ask what the phrase "no justice, no peace" really means. Those who have personally never faced oppression, discrimination or injustice will try to turn it into something negative, and that's expected. But many times, folks -- especially young people -- will ask what I and others mean when we say these words. Allow me to explain: Until civil rights are secured for all, our souls cannot be at peace. Until mothers and fathers no longer have to bury their children because of misconduct by police or vigilantes, our souls cannot be at peace. Until economic opportunity and upward mobility are realities for all regardless of their background, we cannot be at peace. Until women earn equal pay for equal work, our souls cannot be at peace, and until the LGBT community has the same rights as everyone else, our souls cannot be at peace. That is why we gather, and that is why we organize, and that is why we remind everyone that we need action, not just talk. This week, all roads lead to National Action Network's 16th annual convention at the Sheraton New York Times Square hotel. We have undoubtedly progressed as a society, but until social justice and fairness are achieved across the board, we cannot rest. The time for action is now, and you're all invited.

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. This historic legislation made discrimination based on race, color, creed, religion, sex or national origin illegal. It outlawed racial segregation in our schools and public spaces. By all accounts, this act moved the nation forward in ways many could not have even imagined at the time. But unfortunately, subliminal bias is much harder to prove and therefore much harder to eradicate. Through the last 50 years, we have made tremendous progress, but our work remains. We have watched the first African-American president take office, but we have also watched blacks lose an extensive amount of wealth, especially following the Great Recession of 2008. We have witnessed blacks and Latinos serve at virtually every level of government and in the private sector, but we have also been witness to a vicious housing foreclosure rate that hit this group the hardest. This is why we gather.

The National Urban League recently released its 38th edition of the State of Black America, titled "One Nation Underemployed: Jobs Rebuild America." This eye-opening report notes that the underemployment rate for African Americans is an abysmal 20.5 percent. For Latinos it's 18.4 percent, and for whites it's 11.8 percent. Blacks are not only twice as likely as whites to be underemployed but, according to this report, twice as likely to be unemployed. That is simply unacceptable. When economic prosperity is limited for people of color, how can we ever pretend that we are living in a fair environment? These are not imagined numbers; this is factual data from a reputable organization whose findings are similar to those of many other studies. In 2014, when many social barriers have been removed, we must continue to push for a nation where financial barriers must also be removed. Prosperity and the pursuit of happiness must be available to all, not divided along racial lines. We can no longer just talk about these societal ills; we must do something about them. This is why we gather.

It's important to remember that 2014 also marks an election year. And while it may not be a presidential election, the midterms are just as significant because the outcome from November will determine what direction this nation goes. If you care about financial fairness and eliminating income inequality, vote. If you care about a woman's right to choose and have control over her own body, vote. If you care about everyone's civil liberties being protected, vote. If you care about marriage equality, vote. If you want your son or daughter to be able to walk down the street without being shot or killed because of someone else's preconceived ideas, vote. If you care about workers' rights, vote. This is why we gather.

It's amazing when I think that this will be our 16th annual convention. Unlike many other conferences, at NAN's convention we don't just talk about issues; we lay out concrete steps to tackle these challenges. Everyone from President Obama to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to Attorney General Eric Holder to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to notable journalists, civil rights leaders, grassroots organizers, clergy and hundreds who preregistered will be in attendance this week. It will be a broad sector of society because that's what it takes for progress to be achieved. We need elected officials to push for change, just as we need advocates on the ground to keep the momentum going.

For those who are not in the New York area and will not be in attendance, we encourage you to catch many of the plenary sessions and discussions on our livestream at

History teaches us that we must do more than just deliberate and pontificate about social justice; we must make it happen. No justice, no peace.