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U.S.LIFE > People > Biographies of Famous Americans > Andrew Young

Andrew Young

Andrew Young is one of the "long-distance runners" in the continuing struggle to expand and refine democracy in America, to create a more perfect union for its people. At the midpoint of the twentieth century, the movement "to redeem the soul of America" experienced an extraordinary new beginning, grounded in the southern states of our nation, led by the children of Africa, and inadequately labeled "the Civil Rights Movement".

From the beginning of this struggle for democratic redemption, Andrew Jackson Young, deep southerner himself, was fully engaged. This native of New Orleans began his servant-leadership journey as a very young man. While still in their early twenties, Andy and his wife, Jean, were serving a parish made up of two small Congregational churches in south Georgia when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in 1955. As he explains in this interview Young had practically stumbled into Christian ministry, but from the outset he clearly defined that ministry as a base of service to the world around him, and he was soon involved in a local voter registration campaign that drew the angry attention of the Ku Klux Klan and the admiration of new leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. It was this commitment to service and adventure that soon led Young to accept an invitation to serve as an executive with the ecumenical, social justice-oriented National Council of Churches, working especially with young people around the country from the NCC base in New York City. He was the second black executive in a group of six hundred at NCC headquarters.

When the Youngs left New York and returned south in the summer of 1961 our paths crossed for the first time in the city of Atlanta. Andy and Jean had always intended to return to the south, and an invitation for Andy to work with Martin King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) provided the point of reentry. We, ourselves, had just come to Atlanta from Chicago to serve the southern freedom movement as representatives of the service committee of the Mennonite Churches in America and co-directors of Mennonite House, an interracial residential movement center in the exciting city.

It turned out that one of Andy's most experienced and gifted co-workers in the citizenship education program of SCLC was a mature, courageous and creative South Carolinian, Septima Poinsett Clark. Clark was a public school teacher who had been fired from her Charleston position because she refused to give up membership in the NAACP. Eventually that job loss released her to work at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee -- a progressive training center for local pro-democracy workers. At Highlander, Clark developed a week-long workshop process for preparing the rising African-American movement forces not only to vote, but to claim and teach leadership in their communities and in the nation. This was the program that Clark brought to SCLC in 1961, and when she arrived, Andy arranged for Septima to live with us at Mennonite House.

It was partly through the SCLC and Septima Clark connections, and partly through our friendship with Martin and Coretta King (Mennonite House was just around the corner from their residence) that we developed a relationship with Andy and Jean. At the same time, we were working with Andy as mediators and facilitators in a variety of movement communities like Albany, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama. As we joined and observed Andy at work, we were deeply impressed by the unflappable way in which he faced situations of danger and unpredictability, with his marvelous combination of integrity, quiet courage and great sense of humor.

A typical assignment that we shared in places like Albany and Birmingham -- where the movement was creating a powerful and efficacious tension in the status quo -- was to locate and engage the local white leaders who wanted to begin a dialogue with the protest leaders. Andy had deeply imbibed the teachings of nonviolent resistance and faced segregationists and "moderates" with the same equanimity and refusal to lose his cool, always remembering that the goals of the movement were more important than any desire he might have to vent and display the justifiable anger that welled up regularly in us all. He was neither intimidated nor overly impressed by the men (they were always men) who sat on the other side of the negotiating table. And his capacity to easily match their occasional urbanity never caused him to lose his beautiful touch with the grassroots black folk who were at the center of the movement's life and concern. (So we were not surprised when Young later ran for Congress and won the seat representing Georgia's Fifth Congressional district where his constituency was racially mixed but predominately white.)

By the mid-1960s, Andy had become Martin King's closest confidant in SCLC, especially in the post-Selma March days when King was moving to develop a stance that might be called "compassionate religious radicalism", focussed on the needs of the poor of every color. When King was assassinated on the Memphis balcony in 1968, Young was nearby, a brother in struggle and faith, a potential second target for the shooter. For, like King, he too had called the nation and the world to a more righteous relationship to the marginalized, all the while challenging himself toward a more prophetic understanding of his own ministry.

That ministry eventually took Andy to the United Nations as American Ambassador in the administration of President Jimmy Carter. And later he carried out his mission as the second African-American mayor of Atlanta, intentionally focussing on tasks of reconciliation and economic empowerment.

Since that time, Young has chosen to live out his servant-leadership in search of solutions to the problems of Africa and other parts of the human community whose people live on the brittle tenuous edges of "the global community." Presently he is chairman of Goodworks International, a consulting firm specializing in encouraging economic development in Africa and the Caribbean. Young is also president of the National Council of Churches for the 2000-2001 term. Approaching his seventh decade, Andy continues to run with patience the race of hope, integrity and great faith, defining his ministry as service to "the least of these," no matter how long the journey or how great its demands.

Vincent G. Harding and Rosemarie Freeney Harding
Founders and Co-Chairpersons, The Veterans of Hope Project
February 2001

This information was provided courtesy of The Veterans of Hope Project.


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