Whitney M. Young, Jr.Jun 12th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Activism
1921 – 1971 Whitney Moore Young, Jr. was a pioneering social worker who redefined the role of that profession, and its importance to the civil rights cause. His progressive work as the executive director of the National Urban League, and his efforts to bridge racial boundaries and usher African Americans into the social and economic mainstream had enduring results for Blacks and for the nation.
Great Promise at an Early Age
Young was born in Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky on July 31, 1921. His father was president of the Lincoln Institute, a boarding school for Black children where his mother taught, and where Young attended school. He graduated as class valedictorian, showing great promise early on.
From the Lincoln Institute, Young attended another historically Black school, Kentucky State Industrial College with the hope of becoming a doctor. His aspirations changed, however, after he had taken a year of premedical courses. He taught at a nearby school for a year, studied engineering for two years at MIT, and decided to join the Army. In 1944, he found himself in World War II Europe in an all-Black regiment with a White captain.
This proved to be a formative experience. Young often found himself mediating between the officer and the troops, bridging racial and cultural gaps and mitigating the tension always present in the situation. In Young’s own words, “It was my Army experience that decided me on getting into the race relations field after the war. Not just because I saw the problems, but because I saw the potentials, too. I grew up with a basic belief in the inherent decency of human beings.”
Returning to his studies at Kentucky State Industrial College, Young graduated with a B.S. in 1946 and immediately embarked on graduate studies in social work at the University of Minnesota. There he had his initial contact with the Urban League, a relationship that would extend throughout his life.
Upon accepting a position as executive secretary of the Omaha, Nebraska Urban League, Young was offered teaching positions at the University of Nebraska (1950-1954) and Creighton University (1951-1952).
Until 1954, although Young had been ardently fighting for the civil rights of blacks, there was still a sense of incompletion in his work. In 1954, he became Dean of the Atlanta University School of Social Work, and the stage was set for his direct encounter with the struggle for civil rights in the South. As a member of the Atlanta Unitarian Church, he forced that body to change its practice of holding annual picnics at segregated parks. He fought successfully to desegregate the Atlanta public library system, and co-chaired the Atlanta Council on Human Relations.
This record of achievement led to Young’s receipt of a Rockefeller Grant for one year of study at Harvard University in 1960. The following year, in 1961, a golden opportunity presented itself. He was offered and accepted a job as executive director of the National Urban League.
A crucial advocacy organization deeply involved with the social inequities and injustice facing African Americans, the Urban League describes itself as “the nation’s oldest and largest community-based movement empowering African Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream.” As executive director, Young revolutionized the inner workings of the League and substantially expanded its fundraising ability, making connections with previously unused funding sources such as the Rockefeller family. He redesigned the internal structure of the organization, quadrupled its staff, increased the operating budget by a factor of 10, and increased the number of regional offices from 63 to 98.
Navigating a Fine Line
As the civil rights struggle entered an increasingly militant period in the 1960s, some factions viewed Young as too accommodating of the predominant social structure in his efforts to bring Blacks into mainstream society. He was constantly navigating a fine line to be accepted by Whites and Blacks. He would speak about the problems of ghetto life, and then lobby for support from executives of IBM and RCA.
This tension reached a potential crisis in 1963, with the historic March on Washington. At that time, the League’s board resisted supporting the march which they viewed as too radical. Young perceived that the League’s participation would actually serve to neutralize the most radical fringe, and he brought the organization in as a participant. The result was that the Urban League became a standard-bearer and progressive force for the entire civil rights movement.
Young was also a forceful advocate for greater government and private-sector efforts to eradicate poverty. His call for a domestic “Marshall Plan,” a 10-point program designed to close the huge social and economic gap separating Black and White Americans, significantly influenced the discussion of the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty legislation. For this, President Johnson awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, in 1968.
Young was the author of two books, To Be Equal and Beyond Racism: Building an Open Society. He died tragically of a heart attack in 1971 while attending a conference for Black leaders in Nigeria.
A television special on Young’s life was produced and aired by NBC in 1973; and the Los Angeles Urban League’s annual Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award Dinner, begun in 1974, continues today to be that city’s premiere annual gala and fundraiser, raising over $1 million each year from celebrities, community leaders, corporate chiefs, and politicians eager to honor this great African American’s legacy of achievement.