Young, Whitney M., Jr.

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Young, Whitney M., Jr.

July 31, 1921
March 11, 1971

The civil rights leader Whitney Moore Young Jr. was born and raised in rural Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky, the son of Whitney and Laura Ray Young. He grew up on the campus of Lincoln Institute, a vocational high school for black students where his father taught and later served as president. In this setting, Young, who attended the institute from 1933 to 1937, was relatively isolated from external racism. At the same time, he was surrounded by black people who held positions of authority and were treated with respect. In September 1937, Young enrolled at Kentucky State Industrial College in Frankfort; he graduated in June 1941. In college he met Margaret Buckner, whom he married in January 1944; the couple later had two daughters.

In the spring of 1946, after serving in World War II, Young entered a master's program in social work at the

University of Minnesota, which included a field placement with the Minneapolis chapter of the National Urban League (NUL). He graduated in 1947 and, in September of that year, became industrial relations secretary of the St. Paul Urban League, where he encouraged employers to hire black workers. Two years later he was appointed to serve as executive secretary with the NUL's affiliate in Omaha, Nebraska.

During his tenure in Omaha, Young dramatically increased both the chapter's membership base and its operating budget. He fared less well, however, in his attempts to gain increased employment opportunities for African Americans; victories in this area continued to be largely symbolic, resulting primarily from subtle behind-the-scenes pressure exerted by Young himself. Through his Urban League experience, Young became adept at cultivating relationships with powerful white corporate and political leaders.

In early 1954 Young became dean of the Atlanta University School of Social Work. He doubled the school's budget, raised teaching salaries and called for enhanced professional development. With the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the unfolding of civil rights activism, his activities became increasingly political. He served on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Atlanta and played a leadership role in several other organizations committed to challenging the racial status quo, including the Greater Atlanta Council on Human Relations and the Atlanta Committee for Cooperative Action. Unlike some other black community leaders, Young supported and even advised students who engaged in sit-in demonstrations in 1960. Yet Young personally opted for a low-key approach characterized by technical support for the civil rights movement rather than activism.

Young retained close ties with NUL, and in 1960 he emerged as a top candidate for executive director of the New Yorkbased organization. Although by far the youngest of the contenders for the position, and the least experienced in NUL work, Young was selected to fill the national post effective October 1961. Since its founding in 1910, NUL had been more concerned with social services than social change, and its successes had long depended on alliance with influential white corporate and political figures. However, by the early 1960s it was clear that unless it took on a more active and visible role in civil rights, the organization risked losing credibility with the black community. It was Whitney Young who, in more ways than one, would lead NUL into that turbulent decade.

For years, local Urban League activists had lobbied for a more aggressive posture on racial issues. At Young's urging, NUL's leadership reluctantly resolved to participate in the civil rights movementbut as a voice of "respectability" and restraint. In January 1962, Young declared that, while NUL would not engage actively in protests, it would not condemn others' efforts if they were carried out "under responsible leadership using legally acceptable methods." By helping to plan the 1963 March on Washington, Young simultaneously hoped to confirm NUL's new commitment and ensure that the march would pose no overt challenge to those in authority. Young also furthered NUL's moderate agenda by participating in the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership (CUCRL), a consortium founded in June 1963 to facilitate fundraising and information sharing. (CUCRL was initiated by wealthy white philanthropists concerned with minimizing competition among civil rights organizations and tempering the movement's more militant elements.)

As "Black Power" gained currency within the movement, new tensions surfaced inside NUL itself. Students and other Urban League workers disrupted the organization's yearly conferences on several occasions, demanding the adoption of a more action-oriented strategy. Young continued to insist on the primacy of social-service provision. But in June 1968, in an address at the Congress of Racial Equality's (CORE) annual meeting, he spoke favorably of self-sufficiency and community control. The NUL initiated a "New Thrust" program intended to strengthen its base in black neighborhoods and to support community organizing.

During his ten-year tenure, Young made his mark on NUL in other significant ways. He guided the development of innovative new programs meant to facilitate job training and placement, and he vastly increased corporate and foundation support for the organization. In the early and mid-1960s, as corporations (especially government contractors) came under fire for failing to provide equal employment opportunities, business leaders turned to the NUL and its affiliates for help in hiring black workers. At the same time, by aiding NUL financially, they hoped to demonstrate convincingly a commitment to nondiscriminatory policies.

Of the three U.S. presidents in office during Young's tenure with the league, Lyndon B. Johnson proved to be the closest ally; he drew on Young's ideas and expertise in formulating antipoverty programs, tried to bring Young into the administration, and awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1969. Although the relationship with Johnson was important for accomplishing NUL's goals, at times it constrained Young's own political positions. In mid-1966, Young clashed with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders who opposed the Vietnam WarYoung insisted that communism must be stopped in Southeast Asia, and he disagreed that the military effort would divert resources away from urgent problems facing African Americans at home. A year later he was no longer so sure, however. Nonetheless, at Johnson's request, he traveled to South Vietnam with an official U.S. delegation. Young did not speak publicly against the war until late 1969, when Richard M. Nixon was president.

In addition to overseeing NUL's "entry" into civil rights, Young heightened the organization's visibility to a popular audience. He wrote a regular column, "To Be Equal," for the Amsterdam News, which was syndicated through newspapers and radio stations nationwide. He published several books, including To Be Equal (1964), and Beyond Racism (1969). At the same time, Young continued to maneuver in the highest echelons of the corporate world; among other activities, he served on the boards of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He also remained a prominent figure in the social-work profession, serving as president of the National Conference on Social Welfare in 1967 and acting as president of the National Association of Social Workers from June 1969 until his death.

In March 1971, Young traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, with a delegation of African Americans, in order to participate in a dialogue with African leaders. He died there while swimming, either from drowning or from a brain hemorrhage.

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); King, Martin Luther, Jr.; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); National Urban League


Johnson, Thomas A. "Whitney Young Jr. Dies on Visit to Lagos." New York Times, March 12, 1971, p. 1; NASW News 13, no. 4 (August 1968): 1.

Parris, Guichard, and Lester Brooks. Blacks in the City: A History of the National Urban League. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.

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

tami j. friedman (1996)