Whitney Young

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Whitney Young at the White House

Whitney Moore Young Jr. (July 31, 1921March 11, 1971) was an African-American civil rights leader.

He spent most of his career working to end employment discrimination in the United States and turning the National Urban League from a relatively passive civil rights organization into one that aggressively fought for equitable access to socioeconomic opportunity for the historically disenfranchised.

Early Life and Career

Young was born in Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky, on July 31, 1921 to educated parents. His father was the president of the Lincoln Institute, which was where Whitney was raised and educated. His mother, Laura Young, was the first African-American postmaster in Kentucky and the second in the United States.

Young earned a bachelor of science degree from Kentucky State University, a historically black institution. At Kentucky State, Young was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established by and for African Americans.

During World War II, Young was trained in electrical engineering at MIT. He was then assigned to a road construction crew of black soldiers supervised by Southern white officers. After just three weeks, he was promoted from private to first sergeant, creating hostility on both sides. Despite the tension, Young was able to mediate effectively between his white officers and black soldiers angry at their poor treatment. This situation propelled Young into a career in race relations.

After the war, Young joined his wife, Margaret, at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a Masters Degree in social work in 1947 and volunteered for the St. Paul branch of the National Urban League. He was then appointed to a leadership position in that branch.

In 1950, Young became president of the National Urban League's Omaha, Nebraska chapter. In that position, he helped get black workers into jobs previously reserved for whites. Under his leadership, the chapter tripled its number of paying members.

In his next position as dean of social work at Atlanta University, Young supported alumni in their boycott of the Georgia Conference of Social Welfare. The organization had a poor record of placing African Americans in good jobs. In 1960, Young was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant for a postgraduate year at Harvard University. In the same year, he joined the NAACP and rose to become state president.

Young was a close friend of Roy Wilkins, who was the executive director for the NAACP in the 1960s.

Executive Director of National Urban League

In 1961, at age 40, Young became executive director of the National Urban League. Within four years he expanded the organization from 38 employees to 1,600 employees; and from an annual budget of $325,000 to one of $6,100,000. He was president of the National Urban League from 1961 until his death in 1971.

The Urban League had traditionally been a cautious and moderate organization with many white members. During Young's ten-year tenure at the League, he brought the organization to the forefront of the American Civil Rights Movement. He both greatly expanded its mission and kept the support of influential white business and political leaders. As part of the League's new mission, Young initiated programs like "Street Academy", an alternative education system to prepare high school dropouts for college, and "New Thrust", an effort to help local black leaders identify and solve community problems.

Young also pushed for federal aid to cities, proposing a domestic "Marshall Plan". This plan, which called for $145 billion in spending over 10 years, was partially incorporated into President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. Young described his proposals for integration, social programs, and affirmative action in his two books, To Be Equal (1964) and Beyond Racism (1969).

As executive director of the League, Young pushed major corporations to hire more blacks. In doing so, he fostered close relationships with CEOs such as Henry Ford II, leading some blacks to charge that Young had sold out to the white establishment. Young denied these charges and stressed the importance of working within the system to effect change. Still, Young was not afraid to take a bold stand in favor of civil rights. For instance, in 1963, Young was one of the organizers of the March on Washington despite the opposition of many white business leaders.

Young meeting with President Johnson (1966)

Despite his reluctance to enter politics himself, Young was an important advisor to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. In 1968, representatives of President-elect Richard Nixon tried to interest Young in a Cabinet post, but Young refused, believing that he could accomplish more through the Urban League.[1]

Young had a particularly close relationship with President Johnson, and in 1969, Johnson honored Young with the highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Young, in turn, was impressed by Johnson's commitment to civil rights.

Despite their close personal relationship, Young was frustrated by Johnson's attempts to use him to balance Martin Luther King's opposition to the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War.[2] Young publicly supported Johnson's war policy, but came to oppose the war after the end of Johnson's presidency.

In 1968, Herman B. Furguson and Arthur Harris were convicted of conspiring to murder Young as part of what was described as a "black revolutionary plot." The trial took place in the New York State Supreme Court, with Justice Paul Balsam presiding.[3]


On March 11, 1971, Whitney Young drowned while swimming with friends in Lagos, Nigeria, where he was attending a conference sponsored by the African-American Institute. President Nixon sent a plane to Nigeria to pick up Young's body and traveled to Kentucky to deliver the eulogy at Young's funeral.


Whitney Young's legacy, as President Nixon stated in his eulogy, was that "he knew how to accomplish what other people were merely for." [4] Young's work was instrumental in breaking down the barriers of segregation and inequality that held back African Americans.

Hundreds of schools and other sites are named for Young. For instance, in 1973, the East Capitol Street Bridge in Washington, D.C., was renamed the Whitney Young Memorial Bridge in his honor.

The Boy Scouts of America created the Whitney M. Young Jr. Service Award to recognize outstanding services by an adult individual or an organization for demonstrated involvement in the development and implementation of Scouting opportunities for youth from rural or low-income urban backgrounds.

Whitney Young High School in Chicago was named after him.

Whitney M Young Middle School in Cleveland, Ohio was also named after him.

Young's birthplace in Shelby County, Kentucky is a designated National Historic Landmark, with a museum dedicated to Young's life and achievements.


"Every man is our brother, and every man’s burden is our own. Where poverty exists, all are poorer. Where hate flourishes, all are corrupted. Where injustice reins, all are unequal."

"I am not anxious to be the loudest voice or the most popular. But I would like to think that at a crucial moment, I was an effective voice of the voiceless, an effective hope of the hopeless."

"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."

"Black Power simply means: Look at me, I'm here. I have dignity. I have pride. I have roots. I insist, I demand that I participate in those decisions that affect my life and the lives of my children. It means that I am somebody."

See also


  1. ^ Whitney M. Young, Jr. and the Struggle for Civil Rights, Nancy J. Weiss, p. 192
  2. ^ Whitney M. Young, Jr. and the Struggle for Civil Rights, Nancy J. Weiss, p. 163
  3. ^ See "Paul Balsam Dead; A Justice In Queens," The New York Times, December 24, 1972, available for purchase at [1]
  4. ^ Richard Nixon: Eulogy Delivered at Burial Services for Whitney M. Young, Jr., in Lexington, Kentucky

External links

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