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Young, Whitney M. Jr. 1921–1971

Whitney M. Young, Jr. 19211971

Social worker, activist

At a Glance

Academic Years in Atlanta

National Leadership

Talked with Business Leaders

King Assassinated

Selected writings


During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Whitney M. Young, Jr., was an articulate and complex leader who held a sometimes uncomfortable position between black radicals who urged faster and more dramatic changes and the white liberals who financed the movement. As executive director of the National Urban League, he counseled presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon; he exhorted business leaders to bring blacks into the work force; and he worked to train and educate black America.

One of Youngs greatest assets was his ability to speak to, and raise money from, the white elite. His ease in the corridors of power had its roots in his upbringing. The second of three children, Young was born into a sheltered, intellectual environment rare at the time for Southern blacks. His father was president of the Lincoln Institute, a black preparatory school in Lincoln, Kentucky. We didnt see a father who had a white boss, biographer Nancy Weiss quoted Youngs sister Eleanor as saying. It didnt strike us to think that we couldnt be boss. The Youngs friends were other black professionals, and young Whitney often traveled with his father to hear speeches by black leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Adam Clayton Powell.

After attending a local elementary school, Young went to the Lincoln Institute where in 1937 he graduated as valedictorian. The same year he enrolled at Kentucky State Industrial College, immersing himself in campus life. He was captain of the tennis team and manager of the football team. He also was president of his senior class and vice president of the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. Young was very popular, but he was a poor student until he met Margaret Buckner, who helped him bring his grades up; they were later married. When he graduated with a bachelor of science on June 10, 1941, he was near the top third of his class and planned to become a doctor.

Youngs plans were delayed by illness and then changed by World War II. He came down with pneumonia the summer after college and ended up teaching high school for a year. In July of 1942 he enlisted to serve in World War II. In the segregated U.S. Army of that era, blacks were commanded by white officers and relegated to menial jobs. Young held a variety of positions before joining an anti-aircraft unit in Europe. When white officers had trouble controlling black enlisted men, Youngby then a first sergeantbecame

At a Glance

Born Whitney Moore Young, Jr., July 31, 1921, in Lincoln Ridge, KY; died of a heart attack while swimming, March 11, 1971, in Lagos, Nigeria; buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, NY; son of Whitney Moore, Sr. (a headmaster of a preparatory school) and Laura (a teacher; maiden name, Ray) Young; married Margaret Buckner, January 2, 1944; children: Marcia Elaine, Lauren Lee. Education: Kentucky State Industrial College, B.S., 1941; graduate study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1942-44; University of Minnesota, M.A. in social work, 1947. Religion: Unitarian.

Social worker, civil rights activist, and writer. Rosenwald High School, Madisonville, KY, instructor, coach, and assistant principal, 1941-42; Urban League, St. Paul, MN, director of industrial relations and vocational guidance, 1947-50; Urban League, Omaha, NE, executive secretary, 1950-53; Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA, dean of School of Social Work, 1954-61; National Urban League, New York City, executive director, 1961-71. Co-sponsor of March on Washington, August, 1963; co-founder and co-chairman of the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership; director of Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Military service: U.S. Army, 1942-45; became first sergeant.

Member: National Association of Social Workers, National Social Welfare Assembly, National Conference of Social Welfare, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Alpha Phi Alpha.

Awards: Florina Lasker Award for outstanding achievement in field of social work, 1959; grant from Rockefeller Foundation, 1960-61; honorary degrees from universities, including Princeton, 1967, and Harvard, 1968; Christopher book award, 1970, for Beyond Racism: Building an Open Society.

the mediator. That was the beginning of my work in that field, Young told the New York Times, being an intermediary between Whites and Blacks.

Discharged from the army and determined to make a career in race relations, Young enrolled in the University of Minnesotas School of Social Work in Minneapolis, where he received his masters degree in 1947. The same year he became director of industrial relations for the Urban League of St. Paul, Minnesota. In St. Paul, as in other cities, the Urban League strove to open employment opportunities for blacks. It was Youngs job to visit St. Paul employers and convince them to hire blacks. He found jobs for black salesmen, telephone operators, beauty operators, tailors, and othersall positions previously closed to blacks.

Youngs work in St. Paul impressed Lester B. Granger, the executive director of the National Urban League. In 1950 Granger recommended Young for the head position at the leagues chapter in Omaha, Nebraska. According to biographer Weiss, Eugene Skinner, a member of the search committee, described Young as poised, self-confident, articulate, dynamicthe kind of guy that I think would impress whites.

Young worked hard in Omaha and achieved a series of successes. He increased placements in skilled and semi-skilled professions by tripling visits to Omaha businesses. With a local interracial group, the De Porres Club, he brought a new awareness of race. During his time in Omaha, black teachers began to teach white as well as black children; minstrel shows and racial incidents common in 1950 almost completely disappeared; the Omaha Housing Authority ended racial segregation in federal housing; and downtown hotels and restaurants began serving blacks.

Academic Years in Atlanta

With successes in St. Paul and Omaha, Youngs reputation grew. In the summer of 1953 Rufus E. Clement, president of Atlanta University, went to Omaha and asked Young to become dean of the School of Social Work of Atlanta University. During the 1930s and 1940s the School of Social Work had been a beacon of learning in the black community, but in the early 1950s it had been in decline. Young could not resist the challenge of restoring the school to its former glory; in 1954 he moved to Atlanta to take up his new post.

As dean, Young professionalized and expanded the school. He doubled the budget, enlarged the full-time faculty, reorganized the administration, and delegated power to the faculty. He encouraged professors to serve on boards and sent them to conferences. Likewise he supplemented the traditional training in family casework, child welfare, group work and community organization with programs in psychiatric social work, medical social work, and vocational rehabilitation.

In Atlanta Young also became a leader in the struggle for civil rights. He co-chaired the Atlanta Council on Human Relations (ACCA) and took a leading role in forcing the desegregation of the public library system. He helped form Atlantas Committee for Cooperative Actiona business and professional group that worked for civil rightsand coauthored that committees major work, A Second Look: The Negro Citizen in Atlanta. The work details inequalities in education, health services, housing, employment, and law enforcement. In the reports wake he served as an adviser and facilitator for student protests.

National Leadership

Despite successes in Atlanta, Young wished to leave the Southprimarily because of the pressure discrimination put on his wife and family. An opportunity came his way in September of 1959. A speech he gave to the annual conference of the National Urban League impressed L. F. Kimball, a longtime philanthropic counselor to the Rockefeller family and a member of the leagues board of directors. It so happened that the Rockefellerswho were supporting the leaguewere looking for someone to replace longtime league president Granger. To Kimball, Young seemed to be the man for the job.

In the months following the speech, Young and Kimball met and corresponded. Kimball arranged for Young to spend a year at Harvard University to take the edge off. In 1961 the board of the National Urban League chose Young as its next president. When Young entered the leagues New York City offices, he found an organization in desperate financial straits. To set the league on sound financial footing, he and Kimball commenced Operation Rescue. Kimball used his connections to the Rockefeller family to get larger than normal commitments, while Young pitched the Urban League agenda to businessmen at luncheons held by influential people such as David Rockefeller, Robert Sarnoff of RCA, and Thomas Watson, Jr., of IBM. Young had a unique ability to persuade rich men to support a black cause. Within two years, he quadrupled the leagues income.

Organizationally, Young brought in new faces and established new directions. He appointed deputies to handle administration and field operations. In September of 1961 he tied branch offices closer to the national organization through a new Terms of Affiliation. In March of 1962 he prescribed a model Urban League program giving affiliates standards for self-assessment. And in April of 1964 he established three new regional offices to assist local leagues in recruitment, training, program development, budgeting, and fund raising. We must get on the ball, biographer Weiss quoted Young as saying. The day is past when we can play it by ear.

With his advisers, Young also instituted new programs like the National Skills Bank, On-the-Job Training (under contract from the Department of Labor), the Broadcast Skills Bank, and the Secretarial Training Project. Between 1961 and Youngs death in 1971, the league grew from 63 to 98 affiliates; its professional staff grew from 300 to more than 1,200; and its budget increased tenfold.

By 1963, Young saw that the league needed to broaden its focus to include protests. Others were not sure. The 1963 March on Washingtonsite of Martin Luther King, Jr.s famous I Have a Dream speechwas a case in point. March organizers had asked the league to be a co-sponsor, but board membersnervous that possible violence might alienate white supporterswanted to stay out. Young argued, successfully, that as co-sponsor the league could moderate the more radical elements. As it turned out, the march was peaceful and it put the Urban League at the forefront of the civil rights movement.

As head of the National Urban League, Young was in frequent contact with the leaders of the federal government. Relations with President Kennedy were somewhat distant, but when Johnson became president after Kennedys assassination, Young became a habitual visitor and adviser to the White House. Young and Johnson had first met when Young testified before one of Johnsons senate committees. Later, when Johnson chaired the presidents Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, the two became close. Many believe that the proposals Young made for a Domestic Marshall Plan to rebuild the black community influenced Johnsons anti-poverty programs.

Talked with Business Leaders

Since the Urban Leagues focus had always been job training and job placement, Young was naturally at the forefront of the move toward an integrated work place. After Congress outlawed discriminatory employment practices in 1964, he began advising corporations on how to integrate the work place. He met with leaders of such companies as AT&T, Scott Paper, RCA, and General Electric and spoke to business organizations such as the National Industrial Conference Board, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Chamber of Commerce.

Youngs role as an adviser to big business increased as rioting and racial disturbances took hold of urban America during the mid- and late 1960s. Corporate leaders nervous about racial tensions flocked to him for advice. In speaking to chief executive officers, Young used humor to ease what was essentially a harsh messageAmerican business could not afford to keep blacks out of the mainstream.

Because of his access to the corridors of power, Young was not universally liked. Radicals demanding black self-determination mocked moderates like Young who spent most of their time with whites and tried to work within the system. Young knew he was being criticized but told the New York Times: I think to myself, should I get off this train and stand on 125th Street cussing out Whitey to show I am tough? Or should I go downtown and talk to an executive of General Motors about 2,000 jobs for unemployed Negroes.

He approached the fissures in the civil rights movement pragmatically. You can holler, protest, march, picket, demonstrate, Weiss quoted him as saying, but somebody must be able to sit in on the strategy conference and plot a course. There must be the strategists, the researchers, and the professionals to carry out a program. Thats our role. Moreover, he saw that the radical elements actually made his job easier. When Malcolm X (who was a confidant of Youngs) talked about killing Whitey, executives and government officials were much more eager to sit down with someone moderate like Young.

King Assassinated

The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., caused Young to re-think many of his positions and re-orient the Urban League toward the needs of the ghetto. Prompted by league dissident Sterling Tucker, Young introduced New Thrust, a program that attempted to improve life in the ghetto by fostering indigenous political and economic leadership, promoting economic self-sufficiency, and enabling communities to gain control of ghetto institutions. While New Thrust did not imply that Young had given up on the Domestic Marshall Plan or on full integration, it did show that he recognized the importance of dealing with ghetto conditions.

Given the increasingly radical tone of demonstrations, Young also saw the need to bring his public persona in line with the popular tenets of the Black Power movement. In a July 1968 speech before the national convention of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), he used the rhetoric of Black Power to win over an audience suspicious of his dealings with white businessmen and government officials. The national press spoke of the New Whitney Young, but the only things new in his CORE speech were the words Black Power. The message of economic empowerment was the same. By redefining Black Power as black pride and self-sufficiency, he reclaimed the black audience without alienating the Urban Leagues white supporters.

With the election of Republican president Richard Nixon in November of 1968, Young lost much of the access to the White House he had enjoyed during the Johnson administration. He had to walk a political tightrope. If he criticized the president openly, he would loose access completely. If he didnt criticize the president he would seem too cozy with the whites ruling the country. During Nixons first year, Young argued that Nixon ought to be given a chance. Some speculated that he was maneuvering for a cabinet position. As his frustration with Nixons inaction grew, though, he began criticizing the administration, telling the New York Times that it was like jello and consistent only in its inconsistency. In October of 1969 he began speaking out against the conflict in Vietnam, claiming it siphoned away money needed for social reforms.

While its relations with the federal government were beginning to sour, the National Urban League found it was facing a financial crisisNew Thrust was costing a great deal, and contributions were not keeping pace. Young found the answer to the leagues financial woes in an unlikely place the federal government: the league would cure its cash woes by implementing assistance and training programs funded by the U.S. government. In February of 1970 the leagues board approved Federal Thrust. By 1971, the New York Times was calling the National Urban League one of the nations primary non-government forces working toward the self-sufficiency of the Black American poor.

Young spent most of his time traveling, making speeches, and attending conferences. In March of 1971 he went to Lagos, Nigeria, to participate in African-American Dialogue, a conference sponsored by the Ford Foundation. During an off afternoon, he and several other American delegates, including former attorney general Ramsey Clark, went swimming at a nearby beach where on March 11, 1971, Young had a heart attack and died. As quoted by a Time obituary, Young once defined his place in the civil rights movement: Im not anxious to be the loudest voice, or the most popular. But I would like to think that, at a crucial moment, I was an effective voice of the voiceless, and an effective hope of the hopeless.

Selected writings

To Be Equal, McGraw, 1964.

Beyond Racism: Building an Open Society, McGraw, 1969.

Coauthor of A Second Look: The Negro Citizen in Atlanta, 1958.



Weiss, Nancy J., Whitney M. Young, Jr. and the Struggle for Civil Rights, Princeton University Press, 1989.


New York Times, March 12, 1971; March 13, 1971; March 17, 1971.

New York Times Magazine, September 20, 1970.

Time, March 22, 1971.

Sound Recordings

Black Americans: Whitney M. Young, Jr., Encyclopedia Americana/CBS News Audio Resource Library, 1973.

Race Relations and Community, Jeffrey Norton, 1974.

Jordan Wankoff

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"Young, Whitney M. Jr. 1921–1971." Contemporary Black Biography. . 23 Nov. 2017 <>.

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Whitney Moore Young Jr

Whitney Moore Young Jr.

Whitney Moore Young, Jr. (1921-1971), black American civil rights leader and social work administrator, was one of America's most influential civil rights leaders during the 1960s.

Whitney Young, Jr., was born on July 31, 1921, in Lincoln Ridge, Ky. He received a bachelor of science degree from Kentucky State College in 1941 and a master of arts degree from the University of Minnesota in 1947. He served in several capacities for local Urban League chapters in St. Paul, Minn., and Omaha, Nebr., and then became dean of the School of Social Work of Atlanta University in 1954.

After studying at Harvard University during 1960-1961, Young became executive director of the National Urban League. At this time the League was largely a northern-based social welfare agency concerned mainly with helping black migrants from the South find jobs and adjust to their new northern industrial urban environment. Young, however, transformed it into a major civil rights organization. In 1963 he suggested that preferential treatment be given black Americans in jobs, educational facilities, and housing. He reasoned that it was not enough for the United States to merely erase barriers to equal opportunity; rather, in order to overcome centuries of deliberately depriving black people, it was necessary to begin a deliberate, positive program of uplift. He called for a "Domestic Marshall Plan"—an all-out crash program to eliminate poverty and deprivation in the same manner that the Marshall Plan had been launched to rehabilitate war-torn Europe after World War II.

Young saw his role as one of trying to maintain contacts and liaison between increasingly polarizing white and black groups in American society. He admonished black civil rights protesters against violence and at the same time warned white decision makers that, unless substantial gains were made, violence from blacks could be expected, if not condoned. Under Young's leadership, the National Urban League received grants from government and private sources to work on such projects as job training, open housing, minority executive recruitment, and "street academies" (schools in ghetto communities for students who have dropped out of regular school).

Young served on several presidential commissions. In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson appointed him a member of an American team to observe elections in Vietnam.

On Jan. 2, 1944, Young married Margaret Buchner and they had two daughters. He received the Medal of Freedom in 1969 from President Richard Nixon. His programs for integration are outlined in To Be Equal (1964) and Beyond Racism (1969). He died on March 11, 1971, in Lagos, Nigeria; he received posthumous honorary degrees.

Further Reading

Elton C. Fox, Contemporary Black Leaders (1970), and George R. Metcalf, Black Profiles (1970), contain chapters on Young. A biographical sketch of him is in Historical Negro Biographies of the International Library of Negro Life and History, edited by Wilhelmena S. Robinson (1968). For commentary on Young's role in the civil rights movement see August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, eds., Black Protest in the Sixties (1970). □

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