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Andrew Jackson Young, Jr.
Civil Rights Activist and Former United Nations Ambassador

Imagine a time and place when a black man could stand strong and negotiate a racially charged incident with the power of his words and conceivably his fists—if it came to that—but not the life-altering destruction of a firearm. Imagine a generation of men that possessed a philosophical understanding of Christianity and human rights and created social change in an America that tried her best to reject all notions of equality for people of color. Those who lived during the civil rights era surely remember when leaders were leaders—purposeful, selfless and driven, not by personal gain, but by a higher calling. Ordained minister, diplomat, politician, activist and humanitarian, Andrew Jackson Young, Jr. is one of these extraordinary leaders who has dedicated his life to helping write an egalitarian account of history for scores of black folks in an era when inalienable rights were inalienable for everyone but them. Young has established a brilliant legacy of servant leadership but as with any genuine leader, he didn’t come into prominence on his own. His father, Andrew Jackson Young, Sr., a dentist by trade and a loving husband and father, helped him develop the blueprint for his own greatness. Young has served as Mayor of Atlanta, a congressman from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, and United States Ambassador to the United Nations. He served as President of the National Council of Churches USA, an influential member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the 1960s civil rights movement, and was a supporter and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

His father, Dr. Young, standing just 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighing 140 lbs., was small in stature, but his love for his family was enormous. A good father and a good man in his son’s eyes, Dr. Young was always ready and willing to take on the world. Fortunately for us all, he passed this zeal and sense of purpose on to his son. Both father and son are examples of extraordinary men who brought pride, intellectualism, compassion, and moxie to their respective generations and their respective callings.

Young was born in 1932, and the couple’s second son, Walter, was born in 1934. Both Dr. and Mrs. Young come from proud stock and held very high morals and Christian standards. The relationship between Young’s parents was open and trusting. There wasn’t a trace of jealousy between them even with male and female friends visiting the house on a regular basis. Young’s mother had male friends and liked to play bridge. His father was a sports fan who often went to prizefights and baseball games. He didn’t want to take his attractive wife to sporting events. The crowds were usually pretty rowdy, and Dr. Young didn’t want anyone cursing and swearing around Daisy. Much to his chagrin, there wasn’t much he could do about the rowdiness of the crowds, so he took his boys to the prizefights instead. He also arranged for Andrew, Jr. and Walt to go to the gym with the boxers to learn how to box. He would tell his sons, “If you know how to fight, you don’t have to fight. It’s only when you’re scared of fights that you have to fight.”

Young expresses with humor that in some ways he failed his father because he did not become a dentist. When he was sworn in as Ambassador to the United Nations in 1977 under President Jimmy Carter’s administration, United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said to his father, “You must be proud of this boy.”

His father replied, “If he’d been a dentist, I’d be proud!” Although the elder Andrew had a great sense of humor, he was serious about not wanting his son to be a preacher. Dr. Young went to church every Sunday, tithed, sang in the choir and sat on the church board, but still believed all of the preachers he knew were either poor or crooked. He didn’t want his son to be either. He proposed to send Andrew to any school he wanted to go to except divinity school. “If you choose to do that you will have to go on your own,” he told his son. “I’ll pray for you, but that’s the best I can do.”

“My father figured that if I became a dentist I could send my kids to college and live a secure, comfortable life as a community leader,” says Andrew. “He didn’t see any value and thought I was wasting my talents preaching.”

Young has received many awards and accolades for his selfless dedication to civil and humanitarian rights, including the Trustee’s Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2011, presented by legendary television journalist, Tom Brokaw. Young doesn’t personalize these honors and despite historical social change that has occurred under his watch, he believes that he is representative of many others. “I know the honors I’ve received are not mine,” Andrew says. “They belong to thousands of people and I can’t celebrate what we have accomplished because we, as a society, still have not delivered for the rank and file. The working class has slipped back and more of them are in poverty, black and white.”

In reflecting on his life and the lives of those he loves, perhaps the most important lesson Young learned from his father—and also from his grandmother—is something he has passed down to his children and grandchildren: “God has a purpose for everybody’s life. You cannot tell somebody else what God’s purpose is for them; they have to find that out within their own souls,” Andrew reflects. “You can give them examples or you can give them encouragement, but ultimately it’s only as you search within the center of your own being that you know how God is leading you.”

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