The first time Ambassador Andrew Young attended dinner at Martin Luther King Jr.’s house, he was disappointed.
“I remember being quite frustrated because I wanted to talk civil rights and impress him with how much I knew, … but his wife had a new baby and my wife had a new baby, and all we talked about was new babies and what it was like to be a father,” Young said. “It was nothing serious about making the world a better place for our children, it was just how sweet it was for these kids and how much it meant to just hold your own child in your arms and rock it to sleep or change its diapers.”
But, eventually, they did discuss civil rights -— and more than once. Young became a major activist for the civil rights movement and served as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the African-American civil rights organization that King led. From January 1977 to September 1979, Young served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
At 2 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, Young will give a lecture titled “What in the World is God Doing?” as part of this week’s Interfaith Lecture series “Moral Leadership in Action.” His lecture will address how people can be more accepting of the role of the God’s will and spirit in their lives.
Young is recognized as a prominent an American politician, diplomat, activist and minister. Young said he never wanted to be involved in politics and he still doesn’t. But growing up in a politically charged neighborhood in New Orleans gave him an early understanding of racial division in the South.
“There was an Irish grocery store on one corner, an Italian bar on another and the Nazi Party was on the third corner,” Young said. “I grew up in a very charged political environment, and by the time I was in kindergarten, my daddy had to explain Nazism to me. … [The politics] just sort of happened, and that’s the way my life has always been. I have never known one day what I was gonna be doing the next.”
Young has served as a Congressman from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, but in all cases, the position was someone else’s idea. He grew up wanting to be a preacher, despite resistance from his father who thought he would end up too poor. And although Young did work as a pastor, he let God lead him in all different directions.
“It’s pretty much … waking up and wondering what is it that God wants me to do today, and it’s usually something that I didn’t get done yesterday or the day before,” Young said. “But every now and then, something new happens and it becomes more important than what I was doing, and I drop it and keep on with something new. It seems like a natural evolution looking back, but at the time it’s always quite a disruption, to have to stop in the middle of a very successful job to go back to the South to start something that I didn’t know what I was doing or what was gonna be required.”
Young said when King asked him to leave his steady, secure job in New York City to come work for him in the South, everyone else told him not to. Living in the rural South at that time meant he may not live to see age 30.
But Young agreed to move South after encouragement from his wife, who wanted to leave to support King even though they’d just bought a new house.
“It’s hard to get young people to understand that this was a period where everybody knew that something had to be done to save America from itself, but nobody knew exactly what,” Young said. “But we kind of felt that if we were open to the spirit of God we would be led to where we must go and what we must do.”
Young managed to stay fairly safe throughout his involvement in the civil rights movement, and he only went to jail twice. Young actually said he “really enjoyed” his first time in jail.
Young was in Savannah, Georgia, at the time when he saw a group of about 40 young black kids get arrested for only picketing, and he was arrested himself after standing up for them. The whole group was then packed into a paddy wagon for a long ride to the jail in sweltering heat. Young knew if the group started panicking then they would all be miserable, so he decided to help the kids by having them imagine they were at the beach.
“ ‘Now close your eyes and we’re gonna just walk ourselves to the beach,’ ” Young said to the kids. “ ‘Now, take your time. We’re not going fast, we’re going slowly, and we don’t wanna go too deep ’cause I don’t know how many of you can swim, but we’re just going out ’til the water’s knee deep.’ ”
Young said it was probably more than 100 degrees in that paddy wagon when he asked the kids, “You feel the cold water on your feet?”
“We just sort of did a mental exercise of walking out knee deep, and everybody was shivering, they were cold. It really was an interesting mind game,” Young said. “And then we started saying ‘Wade in the water/ Wade in the water children/ wade in the water,’ and the police got so upset and mad that instead of cracking up we started singing.”
Young spent that night in jail, but he said it felt more like he was babysitting kids.
“They turned jail into a fun experience,” Young said. “That night we prayed and we sang hymns; we had a moving kind of experience rather than a panic.”
During Young’s last meeting with King before he went to Memphis, they discussed how to take the energy of the civil rights movement and transfer it into politics. Young was later talked into running for Congress in Georgia.
After running unsuccessfully the first time, Young was elected Georgia’s 5th Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972, becoming the first African-American since Reconstruction to be elected to Congress from Georgia. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Young U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in order to help restore America’s human rights policy and credibility. He was the first African-American to ever hold that position.
“I’ve had a wonderful life since the time I finished college simply because I realized that it was not my life, it was a life that God had given to me, and I had to do something with it to help others,” Young said. “Whoever needed help –— it didn’t matter. It was not my job to decide where I go or what I do.”
Young is a frequent lecturer at Chautauqua Institution, and Associate Director of Religion Maureen Rovegno said the department is always excited to have him back. She said he is an especially appropriate speaker for this week’s focus on moral leadership.
“Ambassador Andrew Young is not only an iconic mover in the civil rights movement, but he also continues to be an esteemed national civic leader as well as an international influencer, and here at Chautauqua he has been a beloved and venerable friend for decades,” Rovegno said. “We treasure both his friendship and the wisdom that he brings to our conversations and aspirations.”