Andrew Young’s lifelong work as a politician, human rights activist, and businessman has been in great measure responsible for the development of Atlanta’s reputation as an international city.
Early Life and Career
Andrew Jackson Young Jr. was born on March 12, 1932, in New Orleans, Louisiana, into a prosperous middle-class family. His mother, Daisy Fuller, was a schoolteacher, and his father, Andrew Young, was a dentist. Born during the depths of the Great Depression and Jim Crow segregation, Young was brought up to believe that “from those to whom much has been given, much will be required.” Young accepted that responsibility from a young age, but as he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, his mission as a civil rights activist and politician has been for him “an easy burden.”
Young graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. He then earned a divinity degree from Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut and accepted the pastorate of Bethany Congregational Church in Thomasville, Georgia, in 1955. While there he immersed himself in civil rights and in organizing voter registration drives. Young joined the staff of the National Council of Churches in 1957, the year U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect African American schoolchildren in a school desegregation case.
Civil Rights Leadership
Young assisted in the organization of “citizenship schools” for the SCLC, workshops that taught nonviolent organizing strategies to local people whom members of the organization had identified as potential leaders. The schools served rural, typically uneducated Blacks who sometimes chafed under Young’s leadership. Differences in education and economic background between Young and other Black leaders of that time may have caused some to consider him elitist. Nonetheless, the citizenship schools educated a generation of civic leaders and registered thousands of voters throughout the South, and were largely responsible for both the civil rights movement’s democratic ethos and its eventual success.
Young became a trusted aide to Martin Luther King Jr., eventually rising to the executive directorship of the SCLC. He was instrumental in organizing voter registration and desegregation campaigns in Albany; Birmingham and Selma, Alabama; and Washington, D.C., among other places. He was with King when the civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
After King’s assassination many of his closest followers struggled to find a voice. Young did not. He won Georgia’s Fifth District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972 and became the first African American since Reconstruction to be elected to Congress from Georgia. Young’s election was momentous: he and Barbara Jordan, a Democrat who was also elected to the House (from Texas) in 1972, became two of the first Black southerners in Congress in the twentieth century. The voter registration campaigns Young had helped organize throughout the South in the 1950s and 1960s bore fruit and would eventually result in the election of thousands of African American candidates to higher office in the coming decades. Young was twice reelected to the House of Representatives.
While in Congress, Young championed the causes of poor and working-class Americans and opposed efforts to increase military budgets. He supported the 1976 presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter, and in 1977 Carter named Young ambassador to the United Nations.
Young helped Carter transform the basis of American foreign policy, making human rights a central focus and arguing that economic development in the Third World, particularly in Africa, was in the best interest of the United States. Young was among the first to call for sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa, and he fought for U.S. recognition of Communist Vietnam. He was forced to resign the position in 1979 for having met with a representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). At that time the PLO was considered a terrorist organization, and U.S. officials were officially forbidden to meet with its members.
Young returned to Atlanta and in 1981 was elected the city’s mayor. His election signaled the institutionalization of the revolution in Black political power he had helped to create in Georgia. For the first time an African American mayor (Maynard Jackson) handed over the keys of a major city to another African American. Young won reelection in 1985 but was defeated in a 1990 primary bid to become the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia. In 1993 Morehouse College in Atlanta established the Center for International Studies, which was renamed the Andrew Young Center for International Studies in March 1998.
Young is currently a professor at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. He has remained active in Georgia’s civic affairs. He served as cochair of the Atlanta Committee for the 1996 Olympic Games and has been vocal on such issues as economic development and the state flag. He has continued to foster economic development in the developing world as a business consultant and as chairman of the Southern Africa Enterprise Development Fund.
Young had four children with his first wife, Jean Childs Young, who died of cancer in 1994. He married his second wife, Carolyn, in 1996. Young has published two books, A Way Out of No Way (1994) and An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America (1996).
Young’s papers are housed at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History. In 2008 a monument honoring Young was dedicated in downtown Atlanta. He was named a Georgia Trustee in 2012, an honor conferred by the Georgia Historical Society and the Office of the Governor.