Whitney Young served as the executive director of the National Urban League from 1961 to 1971, the critical years in the civil rights movement. Although the National Urban League was not involved in direct action protests, Young often collaborated with Martin Luther King, who appreciated that each leader played a different role in the movement and praised Young’s “creative vitality” (King, 31 July 1963).
Young was born on 31 July 1921, in Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky. He grew up on the campus of the Lincoln Institute, a black high school where his father served as president. After graduating from the Lincoln Institute he enrolled at the all-black Kentucky State College, becoming president of his senior class and vice president of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, which King would later join. After graduation he enlisted in the Army. Young had his first experience as a racial mediator in France during World War II, a role that inspired him to pursue a career in social work when he was discharged.
Young began to volunteer with the National Urban League while at the University of Minnesota, where he obtained his master’s degree in social work in 1947. In 1954 Young moved to Atlanta to become the dean of the School of Social Work at Atlanta University, and also co-chaired the Atlanta Council on Human Relations.
On 21 June 1958 King solicited Young’s suggestions for topics to discuss at a meeting he had requested between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and prominent African American leaders. Young wired King the same day, expressing his “complete confidence in you representing us” (Young, 21 June 1958).
Young was handpicked by a representative of the Rockefeller Foundation, a major donor to the National Urban League, to succeed Lester Granger as the organization’s head. After spending a year at Harvard University on a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, Young was elected executive director of the National Urban League in February 1961. King congratulated Young, writing: “I am convinced that they could not have found a better person for the job,” and offering his full assistance (King, 13 February 1961).
The following year King invited Young to speak at the annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Young’s speech was such a success that SCLC reproduced it for all of the conference participants. In 1963, at the instigation of philanthropist Stephen Currier, King, Young, and representatives from five other civil rights groups began to meet regularly to discuss the possibility of collaborating in the movement. The group later became known as the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, or the Unity Council. Although the Urban League was more committed to social service than direct action, Young made the controversial decision to co-sponsor the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with other Unity Council members.
Like other moderate civil rights leaders, Young did not agree with King’s opposition to the Vietnam War, saying that the first priority of black people was “survival in this country,” and that the issues of civil rights and the war “should remain separate” (King, “Man’s Relation to Man,” 1964). King’s opposition to the war led to his alienation from President Lyndon B. Johnson, but Young’s stance brought him closer to the administration. At Johnson’s request, Young traveled to Vietnam twice, returning with positive accounts of race relations in the military. Only after Johnson left office in 1969 did Young begin to call for a speedy withdrawal from Vietnam.
In his mediating role between whites and blacks, Young was often labeled a moderate, despite his own belief that “nobody who’s working for black people is a moderate. We’re all militants in different ways” (Buckley, “Whitney Young”). Young’s sudden death in 1971 in Lagos, Nigeria, shocked the nation. President Richard Nixon sent a special Air Force jet to retrieve his body, and his funeral was attended by over 6,000 people, including Coretta Scott King.
Tom Buckley, “Whitney Young: Black Leader or ‘Oreo Cookie’?” New York Times, 20 September 1970.
Dickerson, Militant Mediator, 1998.
King, “Man’s Relation to Man: Beyond Race and Nation,” Current 86 (May 1967): 32–40.
King to National Urban League, 31 July 1963, MLKJP-GAMK.
King to Young, 21 June 1958, in Papers 4:425.
King to Young, 13 February 1961, WYP-NNC.
Weiss, Whitney M. Young, Jr., 1989.
Young, Draft, Telegram to King, 21 June 1958, WYP-NNC.