An Evening with an Icon
By Shaneesa N. Ashford
When one of the most recognized civil and human rights icons of the 20th and 21st centuries speaks, it tends to be like E.F. Hutton – people listen.
Such was the case when Ambassador Andrew Young sat down with Anthony Pinder ’85, executive director of the Andrew Young Center for International Affairs, for a chat on Nov. 9. With a packed house in the Leadership Center’s Bank of America Auditorium, Young spoke on a plethora of subjects, ranging from the civil rights movement to the hip-hop generation.
Young spoke of his childhood in New Orleans, where he described his neighborhood as a “mini U.N.” His experiences growing up around people of various cultures, including Germans loyal to Adolf Hitler, gave him an early introduction to discrimination. “My father had to explain racism to me,” Young said. “It was almost the first thought I had.”
After a year at Dillard University, which he said was too close to home because “everyone knew me as a bad boy,” Young made his way to Howard University, where he graduated with a pre-med degree in 1951. He went on to earn a bachelor of divinity from Hartford Theological Seminary in Hartford, Conn., in 1955.
Face to Face Encounter Teaches Lessons
But all of the education in the world could not prepare him for Doerun, Ga., where a run-in with hardcore racists led to a moment of clarity on the ideal of nonviolence. During a confrontation with what he describes as hundreds of white supremacists, Young’s first wife, Jean, refused to brandish a shotgun, even though her family was threatened. Young described her as “a good shot,” but she reminded him to practice what he preached.
“I studied theologians who advocated negotiation from a position of strength,” Young said. “But (Jean said) ‘You’re preaching God and resurrection – it’s got to apply to you.’”
Young would later join other civil and human rights advocates, including Martin Luther King Jr. ’48, in spreading the message of equality. He recalled the singular turning point in the civil rights movement: Birmingham, Ala. It was there that, after a month of daily demonstrations and 300 people in jail, black business leaders and clergy asked King and his supporters to call off the movement.
“(Martin) said, ‘I cannot leave here with these people in jail,’” Young said.
King, with 55 supporters in tow, proceeded to the jail and was arrested. From there, the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written. Young said that letter defined the civil rights struggle and spread the message across the country.
Following in Large Footsteps
During the civil rights movement, Young learned the power of the word as an avenue for change. Later, he would learn the power of the dollar. It was a lesson that would guide him through three terms in Congress, a term as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and two terms as mayor of Atlanta, succeeding Morehouse alumnus Maynard Jackson ’56.
Later, Young would expand his international work through GoodWorks International, LLC, a company developed in 1996 to foster economic development in Africa and the Caribbean through partnerships between the private and public sectors. The company, which now has offices around the world, was instrumental in partnering Nigeria with General Electric so that the country’s turbines could be used for energy.
Just a 'Get Down Brother'
Possessing a wealth of knowledge in his own right, Young was also instrumental in securing another wealth of knowledge – the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection. The papers, which were scheduled to be auctioned in June, were purchased through the efforts of Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, under Young’s counsel, and a group of investors. Young hopes the papers will allow future generations to learn about King, the man, who he said was laid back and cool.
“I hope we will study Martin as a person and realize that he wasn’t different than the rest of us,” Young said. A relative, Young said, sees it in a different way: “She said, ‘You all were just some get down brothers in the right place at the right time, and did the right thing.’”
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