Commentary

When Ben Richmond was growing up, he thought he’d become a musician. Maybe an opera singer.

Anyone familiar with the Louisville civic leader’s golden voice would not be surprised. As a Methodist preacher’s son, he had plenty of chances to sing in his father’s churches.

But on the way to the Met, Richmond found his passion in education and employment opportunities. And instead of singing from a stage, he carried out a long and distinguished career atop the Urban League. Most of it he spent at the Louisville chapter.

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This week, a crowd of city leaders gathered at the Kentucky Center for African-American Heritage to celebrate his career and wish him well in his retirement, which began Oct. 1.

There is much to celebrate.

Richmond spent much of his youth in Jackson, Miss. He grew up in the 1960s, when the nation — and especially the Deep South — were gripped by the Civil Rights Movement.

He went to college at the historically black Tougaloo College, north of Jackson, and studied music. Later he went north to Madison, Wisc., where he began working at the Urban League in 1979.

Richmond came to Louisville in 1987 as heir apparent to legendary Urban League leader Arthur Walters, who ran the local chapter from 1970 to 1987. Of Walters, Richmond once observed: “He was very similar to Louis Coleman,” referring to the dynamic leader of street protests, who died in 2008. “The difference,” Richmond noted, “is Walters didn’t carry a bullhorn. His bullhorn was getting into the boardrooms and places of influence, and talking about solutions.”

Ben Richmond

Ben Richmond

The same has been true of Ben Richmond, who is at ease in boardrooms and backrooms of power in Louisville. Richmond’s reach went beyond those rooms, though, and directly into the heart of the community.

During his 28-year-tenure as president and CEO of the Urban League, Richmond grew the organization’s coffers more than fivefold. That enabled the expansion of programming in areas that affect families most, such as job training, housing and youth development.

It was no surprise the Urban League more than doubled the number of people it serves under Richmond’s leadership.

Partnership is a key to Ben Richmond’s philosophy of leadership. His cordial but firm approach has made him an effective player in economic development, education and civic affairs here for nearly three decades.

Charming on the exterior, he also knows how to make waves in private. In a sense, that is the personification of the Urban League itself.

Keith Runyon retired in 2012 after 43 years at The Courier-Journal, where he served as opinion pages editor and often consulted with Ben Richmond on important issues of their times.