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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 180

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This is the grave of Whitney Young.

Born in 1921 in Kentucky to an upper-middle class family deeply involved in black education and civil rights, Young graduated from Kentucky State University, the state’s HBCU in 1941. He went to MIT to train in electrical engineering and then when he joined the military during the war, found himself almost instantly involved in civil rights issues. He was on a road construction crew of black soldiers dominated by white officers, which was just Jim Crow racism in the military. Young, with many skills and much leadership ability, found himself promoted from private to sergeant in only a few weeks and he worked to mediate the problems between the officers and the black enlisted personnel. After the war, he received a MA from the University of Minnesota in social work and started working for the National Urban League. It would be there he would make his mark.

The Urban League was founded in 1910 in New York to focus on conditions for urban black dwellers, at a time when the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the South and to northern cities was just beginning. It was a relatively staid organization though, focusing on black economic self-reliance and education and largely staying out of big political questions, though it did support A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement in 1940 to desegregate the defense industry. Young worked for the Urban League in Omaha and then Atlanta, while also teaching and then becoming the dean of social work at Atlanta University. Through this period, the Urban League had a lot of white members and was known for its moderation. As the Black Freedom Struggle began to peak in the 1950s and 1960s, it moved too fast for a lot of its members. In the middle of this, Whitney Young became its Executive Director in 1961, still only aged 40.

Young sought to drastically increase the impact of the Urban League while retaining its moderate tone. He convinced the other officers to vastly increase its funding and employees. In 1961, it had a budget of $325,000 and 38 employees. In 1965, it had a budget of $6.1 million and 1,600 employees. Young sought to use this increased funding to influence national politicians to support for programs for urban blacks, particularly during the Johnson administration, where some of his ideas were incorporated into the War on Poverty. He worked closely with corporate heads to open up more hiring to black workers. He also played a role in organizing the March on Washington in 1963, helping to coordinate between the different and often contentious groups involved.

Through all of this, Young and his friend, NAACP head Roy Wilkins, received a lot of flak from more radical civil rights workers. People in SNCC, not to mention the Black Panthers and other grassroots streets movements, considered Young a sellout, unwilling to put his body on the line and more concerned with making white business owners happy than in pressuring for black rights. To be fair, there was a little bit of truth in this, even if those young activists were more than a little full of themselves. But Young also was a major public leader of the movement and one that could get whites to listen when other leaders could not. He had political power shared only by Wilkins and King, to the point that Lyndon Johnson tried to use him as a counterpoint to King when the latter came out against the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, although Young was uncomfortable with this, he continued to publicly support the war, although he eventually spoke out against it after Johnson left the presidency, in no small part because his daughter engaged in hunger strikes during anti-war protests. This was part of the critique of Young. He had traveled to Vietnam in 1966 and spoke in fairly supportive ways about the experience, leading critics of the left to say he was a bought man of LBJ. But he was a guns and butter man and wanted to believe that the nation could afford both the fight against communism and robust social programs at home. When his faith became shaken in that is when he started to nudge against the war. But then Johnson pressured him to serve on the American delegation to observe elections in South Vietnam. When Young hesitated, Johnson told him, “Whitney, you wanted a Negro on the Supreme Court and I put on one. Now I want a Negro on this group going to Vietnam. Well, Whitney I’m going to announce you as one of the team, and if you feel you can’t serve your country, you explain it to the press.” Young went to Vietnam. It was at this point that John Wilson of SNCC called the Urban League a “puppet” of the U.S. government.

Of course there are many approaches to pushing for greater equality and Young by and large did the right thing, including in his great expansion of the Urban League’s mission. Moreover, Young did a lot to move the Urban League where the rest of the Civil Rights Movement was going, including in helping to plan the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. And he had to drag parts of that organization kicking and screaming into the 1960s, so he deserves a lot of credit for this. Young even managed to continue good relations with Richard Nixon, to the point that Nixon tried to convince Young to accept a position in the Cabinet.

Young died of a heart attack while swimming in Nigeria in 1971. Vernon Jordan took over for him at the Urban League.

Whitney Young is buried in Ferndale Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.

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