Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
Andrew Young’s work as a pastor, administrator, and voting rights advocate led him to join Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the civil rights struggle. Young, who entered electoral politics shortly after King’s assassination, credited King with giving “purpose and sustenance” to his life (Young, 474). “He left his mark on me, both in indelible memories and in the spiritual and practical lessons of our trials and triumphs,” Young recalled. “It is by the quality of those days that I have come to measure my own continuing journey” (Young, 474).
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 12 March 1932, into a middle-class family, Young earned a BS (1951) in biology from Howard University before studying to become a minister. In 1955 he earned a divinity degree at Hartford Theological Seminary and was ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ. In 1957, after serving as a pastor at Bethany Congregational Church in Thomasville, Georgia, Young joined the National Council of the Churches of Christ in America in New York as an associate director of the Youth Division of Christian Education.
In his memoir An Easy Burden (1996), Young recalls meeting King in 1957, when the two shared the podium at the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity’s annual program at Talladega College in Alabama. After the event, King invited Young to visit him in Montgomery. Young was excited about the possibility of speaking with King about his philosophy of nonviolence and “about how he had applied his academic training to the practical situation in the South,” but to Young’s dismay, King was not interested in talking about his academic studies: “He was mostly interested in talking about Yoki, his and Coretta’s new baby … and he didn’t feel like acting out the role of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Young, 97).
Moved by the student movement in Nashville in 1960, Young considered relocating to the South to run the Highlander Folk School Citizenship Training Program and solicited King’s advice. Although King had high praise for Highlander’s program, he cautioned Young that Tennessee officials were attempting to close the school. “Certainly I would not advise you to leave the position that you are now holding unless you can be sure that Highlander will remain open” (King, 25 April 1961). Young accepted Highlander’s offer, but, as King warned, Highlander closed in 1961 before Young and his wife, Jean, arrived. The program moved its administrative offices to SCLC headquarters in Atlanta, while the United Church of Christ renovated facilities in Dorchester, Georgia, to host the citizenship schools. Young took over the program, which gradually became an integral part of SCLC. In 1963 Young was a key figure on the biracial negotiating committee that forged the hard-won agreement that ended the Birmingham Campaign.
In 1964 King promoted Young to executive director of SCLC after the departure of the embattled Wyatt Tee Walker. For the next several years Young became one of King’s most trusted advisors and confidantes and worked with him during campaigns in St. Augustine, Selma, and Chicago. He recalled that, in executive meetings, King wanted to hear conservative as well as radical viewpoints, “and it almost always fell to my lot to express the conservative view” (Young, 16 July 1968).
In April 1968 Young was with King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when the civil rights leader was slain. Young recalled that King was in a jovial mood on the evening before his assassination, even engaging Ralph Abernathy and Young in a pillow fight. Late in the afternoon of 4 April, shortly after a limousine arrived to pick up King and his entourage for dinner, Young heard a sound like a car backfiring and saw that King was no longer standing on the hotel balcony. Young’s first thought was that King was “still clowning” (Young, 464). Young was devastated by King’s assassination: “It seemed unfair that he was ‘free’ from innumerable problems, while we, the living, were left to try to cope without him. We had been just getting by with him, how could we get along without him?” (Young, 466).
Young left SCLC in 1970 to run for Congress. Although defeated in his first bid, he ran successfully in 1972, and represented his Georgia district for three terms before being appointed ambassador to the United Nations by President Jimmy Carter. Noted for his sympathetic approach in dealing with developing nations, Young was pressured to resign in 1979, after an unauthorized meeting with a representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 1981 President Carter awarded Young the Congressional Medal of Freedom. Young served as mayor of Atlanta from 1982 to 1990 before launching an unsuccessful bid for governor of Georgia in 1990.