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Whitney M. Young Jr.: Little Known Civil Rights Pioneer

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2002 – Many people, particularly the younger generation, are not aware of Whitney M. Young, Jr.'s contributions to the civil rights movement or his role in making life better for African Americans in the armed forces.

Young was one of America's most charismatic, courageous and influential civil rights pioneers. Yet, he never achieved the fame of his contemporaries, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and a host of others.

But those who knew of him and his work had high praise for him. Politician, civil rights leader and clergyman Andrew Young, said Whitney Young "knew the high art of how to get power from the powerful and share it with the powerless."

Nancy J. Weiss, in her 1989 book, "Whitney M. Young Jr. and the Struggle for Civil Rights," wrote that Young "spent most of his adult life in the white world, transcending barriers of race, wealth and social standing to advance the welfare of black Americans. His goal was to gain access for blacks to good jobs, education, housing, health care and social services. His tactics were reason, persuasion and negotiation."

Author Dennis Dickerson, in his 1998 biography "Militant Mediator," credited Young with almost single-handedly persuading corporate America and major foundations to aid the civil rights movement through financial contributions in support of self-help programs for jobs, housing, education and family rehabilitation.

Young devised a "Domestic Marshall Plan" for cities that President Lyndon B. Johnson later incorporated into his War on Poverty. Young's plan sought to eradicate ghettos and to increase spending on education, housing, vocational training and health services at a cost of $145 billion over 10 years.

No one knows of Young's efforts better than his sister, Eleanor Young-Love of Louisville, Ky. "He played a great part in the civil rights movement, but Whitney wasn't the kind who would boast about what he had done," she said. "He quietly did things that needed to be done. I hope that some day he will get credit for paving the way for African Americans who are now in prominent positions in the Fortune 500 companies and the rest of the big businesses and industries."

Love called her brother an expert negotiator who played a pivotal role in convincing presidents of big companies to take African Americans into high positions.

"Not just one, but many up to the positions of vice president and other high positions in their companies," said Love. "He also had the ear of three presidents -- Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon."

The success and ease Young had in working with the white establishment made him a target of harsh, sometimes bitter criticisms. Black militants and white radicals labeled him a sell-out to whites or as an "Uncle Tom," "Whitey," "Oreo" and other derogatory names, according to Urban League president Hugh B. Price.

Love said people call her brother unkind names because they didn't understand his modus operandi. "He wasn't out there cursing the white man," she said. "He was telling white men and women what they had done wrong and how they could change it and help African Americans instead of always putting them down.

"He may not have been a marcher, but he was a negotiator," she noted. "I don't care how much marching you do, if you didn't have a job, you can't buy a home or get good health benefits. So African Americans needed somebody in the boardroom talking to those people and telling them what they could do and insisting that they do it. Whitney was that kind."

Love said her brother's efforts are perhaps not as recognized as other civil rights leaders' because he wasn't out in the streets screaming, hollering and marching.

Young himself once wrote, "You can holler, protest, march, picket and demonstrate, but somebody must be able to sit in on the strategy conferences and plot a course. There must be strategies, the researchers, the professionals to carry out the program. That's our role."

"Consequently," Love said, "many people didn't know about all the good things he was doing behind closed doors.

"His negotiations for jobs for African Americans and his emphasis on health and education were some of the most important things in the civil rights movement," Love noted. "I feel that one day this will come out and he will be given credit for a lot of successes African Americans are having today.

"A lot of people, especially of other races, listened to Whitney," Love said. "He knew how to get the message across about what other people had done to African Americans, and what they're still doing, without making them angry or turning them off.

"As Whitney said, 'I may not be down with you wherever you are in the gutter, but I intend to bring you up here where I am,'" Love said. "'My job is to help you reach your goals and help the African American to become a part of the companies. This way, they'll be in position to hire other African Americans or become entrepreneurs themselves after they see how these businesses work.'"

Young was born in a two-story wooden house on the campus of the Lincoln Institute of Kentucky (Lincoln Ridge), where his father, Whitney M. Young Sr., taught and was president. His mother, Laura Young, was the first African American postmaster in Kentucky and the second in the United States.

As a youngster, Young, his family and other African Americans were inundated by the "N" word and other derogatory utterances whenever they were near whites. But such malicious defamation didn't dissuade him from wanting to succeed in life.

Young wanted to become a physician, but his World War II experiences as a noncommissioned officer in a segregated Army changed his mind. He was assigned to a road construction crew of black soldiers supervised by Southern white officers. Being promoted from private to first sergeant in just three weeks created hostilities among the black and white troops. But he smoothed things out, according to biographer Dickerson.

After settling numerous disputes between black soldiers and their white commanders, he discovered that his forte in life was interracial mediation, the book stated.

"Not just because I saw the problems, but because I saw the potentials, too," Young explained in a speech while president of the National Urban League, a post held from 1961 until he drowned on March 11, 1971, in Lagos, Nigeria. "I grew up with a basic inherent decency of human beings."

Returning to civilian life after the war, Young switched his career interest from medicine to social work. A graduate of Kentucky (Frankfort) State College, he earned a master's degree in social work at the University of Minnesota. He also studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a visiting scholar at Harvard University under a special Rockefeller grant.

Young was also dean of the Atlanta University School of Social Work and president of the National Conference on Social Welfare and the National Association of Social Workers. He served for a time as Georgia state president of the NAACP.

At age 40, Young became president of the National Urban League in 1961. In just four years, he revitalized the relatively passive civil rights organization and turned it into an aggressive fighter for civil rights and justice. He expanded the organization from 38 employees to 1,600 employees and from an annual budget of $325,000 to more than $6.1 million.

Young spearheaded drives for equal opportunity for African Americans in U.S. industry and government services, including the armed forces. He helped place African American workers into jobs previously reserved for whites. He fought for better treatment of African Americans in the armed forces and jobs for military veterans.

Young, who had been a consultant on racial matters to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, served on seven presidential commissions, including those for youth employment and equal opportunity. He was a trustee of the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Foundation and also conferred with President Nixon.

Several of the presidential committees he served on looked specifically into the treatment of African Americans in the armed forces.

"I visited Vietnam twice, and on both occasions I spent as much time as possible with the black soldiers there," Young wrote in his 1969 book, "Beyond Racism." "Although blacks are only about a tenth of the population, they account for a fifth of the land troops in Vietnam and a higher percentage of the casualties. Some of the frontline fighting units, including many of the elite troops, are 30, 40 and 50 percent black."

However, Young believed African American servicemen were getting a unique experience in equality in Vietnam.

"Black sergeants were in command of white soldiers, and whites and blacks shared the same dugouts and outposts without any discussion about open occupancy," he wrote. "They were given an equal chance to die, and they were determined that when they returned to the states, they'd get an equal chance to live."

Young said his discussions with troops in Vietnam led to the creation of the Urban League's Veterans Affairs program. The program was staffed by veterans who helped other veterans to find jobs, housing, educational facilities and to assist them with other problems.

For his service to the nation, President Johnson honored Young in 1968 with the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.

Young, in his first book, "To Be Equal," published in 1964, hammered at the need for the government, big business and unions to open their doors to training, educating and hiring more African Americans. He was a prominent lecturer and author whose syndicated newspaper column on racial and urban problems appeared in more than 80 newspapers across the country. His works are now housed at 27 universities, libraries and research centers around the country.

The wooden house that was Young's birthplace is now a National Historic Landmark. The institute campus is now the Whitney M. Young Jr. Job Training Corps Center. Eleanor Love is a past president and current member of the board of directors of the Lincoln Foundation, which is responsible for the training center and the memorial landmark house.

Perhaps one of the better descriptions of Young's life was voiced by a black high school student in Michigan at the time of Young's funeral in 1971: "Whitney Young started out a brother and died a brother. He was one cat that could run with rich white people and still look out for us."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageWhitney M. Young Jr. wanted to be a doctor until his wartime military service pointed him toward an entirely different destiny: interracial mediation. Photo courtesy of National Urban League.  
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