The Black Lives Matter movement should not be misinterpreted: All lives matter, said Marc Morial, chief executive of the National Urban League.
"I hope people would not get caught in terminology and understand why we say that. We say it because we want all lives to matter," Morial told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Wednesday, as the civil rights organization kicked off its annual conference in Baltimore.
"But historically," he continued, "black lives have not had the same value, if you look at the type of challenges that we face in the country."
According to its website, Black Lives Matter started in the summer of 2013 after neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
"We reaffirm the value of every life. But we rally behind this idea of 'Black Lives Matter' because we need a focus on racial justice in this country," Morial said, citing what he calls disparities in criminal justice, in voting and in the economy.
"While some people may not be comfortable with that, I really believe [that] in 21st century America, as we change as a nation, we've got to make leveling the playing field key to everything we do," he added.
Critics of Black Lives Matter often call for the use of alternative phrases, including "all lives matter" and "blue lives matter," referencing fallen police officers.
The racial divisions facing the nation are borne in part out of a frustration about "economic stagnation," said Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans.
"The average American … [is] going through some very difficult and challenging times in this post-recession America. I think that that causes people to look to blame someone," he said.