By Austin R. Cooper, Jr.
The Honorable Andrew J. Young, 89, has held many titles: reverend, scholar (over 80 honorary doctorates), congressman, ambassador, and mayor. Despite these titles, Young is quite comfortable being called “Andy” by all. I prefer “Ambassador.”
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Ambassador Young. Throughout our conversation, he reflected on many topics, including the impact of unfair housing practices and discrimination on Black Americans. Young played a significant role alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s Chicago Freedom Movement to end slums and improve living conditions. As Mayor of the City of Atlanta, Georgia, affordable housing was at the top of his agenda. We also discussed his views on building generational wealth among Black Americans and faith in the midst of so much hatred in the world.
Discovering Andrew Young?
I first learned of Young as a ten-year-old growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. The year was 1972, and I had just completed a book on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
While reading Black Enterprise in early 1975, I learned that Young had been elected to Congress the prior November from Atlanta, Georgia. He served in Congress for two terms before being appointed as the first Black U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.
(In the interview, Young explains how growing up in a culturally diverse neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana, prepared him to serve at the United Nations. “I think I grew up in a neighborhood that required that I be an ambassador.”)
In January 1978, my father took me to a Black Ministers Breakfast. Young was the guest speaker.
Riding home, I told my father, an Episcopal priest, “One day, I want to work for Ambassador Young.” He replied, “Well, maybe one day you will. You don’t know what God has planned for you.”
Working with Ambassador Young
My dream came true: I did. After his tenure as U.S. Ambassador at the United Nations, Young became Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, from 1982 to 1990. After serving as Mayor, Young co-founded GoodWorks International, a global advisory firm. Joining the firm in 2005, I worked for him for eight years.
As a historian and an avid reader, particularly of the Civil Rights Movement, one of the highlights of my job was listening to Young’s behind-the-scenes insights of the thirteen years he spent at the side of King. Young and King first met in April 1957 at a religious emphasis week program hosted by their fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, at Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama.
By the time they met, King had already gained national and international acclaim for leading a successful city-wide, year-long bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was a pastor. Young was the minister of a church in nearby Marion.
Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with Young about the Movement, including the challenges to getting public accommodations in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963; King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in August of that year, and the meeting immediately afterward at The White House with President John F. Kennedy; the 1965 march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery; King’s public opposition to the war in Vietnam beginning in early 1967; and the events immediately before and after King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.
Yet, in all of these conversations, I had never spoken to Young about his involvement in King’s efforts to highlight unfair housing practices and conditions in Chicago, Illinois, in 1966. Until now.
The Chicago Freedom Movement
In January 1966, King announced plans to bring his crusade to Chicago, Illinois. Leaders of the Chicago Freedom Movement, a coalition of 44 civil rights organizations, invited King to help bring attention to the racist and discriminatory practices impacting Blacks in the North.
Reflecting on that time, 55 years after the demonstrations in Chicago, Young graded their efforts: “Our efforts were A-plus.” However, he also acknowledges the many challenges King faced, including the shooting of James Meredith that June in Mississippi.
“In addition to being overworked and overburdened, we got pulled into the war in Vietnam. And that divided us up all over the country. Yet almost everything we worked on had success. We managed to do everything, but not well.”
One success Young acknowledged after Chicago in 1966 was the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
One week after King’s assassination in Memphis, President Lyndon B. Johnson used this national tragedy to mobilize support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This legislation expanded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the inclusion of Title VIII, known as the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, (and as amended), and family status.
Young also speaks to generational wealth in the 1960s and today.
Housing owned by White slumlords in Chicago in 1966, Young said, was their form of generational wealth: “But it was usually a form of generational wealth for them that they really didn’t need. That’s what created slums – taking out of a community and not reinvesting in a community.”
When asked to define generational wealth, he answered, “Generational wealth is absolutely necessary and essential if possible. The first possibility of generational wealth is probably to own a home. If you can own a home and pass it on to your children, you’ve really done something.”
Addressing Housing as Mayor of Atlanta
As Mayor of Atlanta, Young continued King’s work on affordable housing, including Black homeownership.
“You know, shortly after Dr. King’s death, I became Mayor of Atlanta, and we did a lot of things that were creative. For example, we took buildings, homes, that were abandoned and not being used, and we passed an urban housing act which allowed us to sell these homes to individuals for $1.” These homes were sold to qualifying Atlanta residents through a lottery.
Young agrees that much work needs to be done to address fair and affordable housing in America adequately. He also believes that it will take the combined efforts of federal, state, and local government and the private sector, and civil rights organizations to ensure that this becomes a reality for all Americans.
The Burden of Hatred and Hope Through Faith
Toward the end of the interview, the preacher in Young comes out as he remembers the words of King’s father, affectionately known as “Daddy” King.
Despite all of the tragedies that had fallen upon his family – the shooting of his father by racists, the assassination of his son, the mysterious drowning of another son, and the killing of his wife as she played “The Lord’s Prayer” during the Sunday morning worship service at the family’s church Ebenezer Baptist Church– he never lost faith in the power of God nor the goodness in all of us.
Daddy King often said, “Hate is too great a burden to bear. No man can make me hate him.”
“It says to me there is a nonviolent tradition in the Black community that says that no matter what happens to us, we don’t hate anybody, and we work to overcome it,” said Young.
Like Daddy King and his son, Martin, nonviolence, faith, love of family, a drive for equality and justice for all, and “never allowing anyone to pull you so low as to hate them” is what has sustained Young for his entire life and one that no doubt will continue to do so as he celebrates his 90th birthday on March 12th.