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If you like Andrew Young's story, you might also like:
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Andrew Young
Andrew Young
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Andrew Young Interview

Civil Rights Ambassador

August 14, 2013
Willard Hotel, Washington, D.C.

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  Andrew Young

You've done so many things in your life, but we can trace a lot of them back to your involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s and '60s. How did you first decide to become involved with the movement?

Andrew Young: Well, in a way, my wife Jean decided.

When we married, she was determined that she wanted to stay in the South, that she wanted to be a teacher. Now the interesting thing was I had no real nasty racial experiences growing up. I could deal with the segregation, and I could always slide by and get along. That wasn't true of her, it wasn't true of Coretta (Scott King). Her family had earned land out of the Reconstruction, so they were a wealthy rural family that had three or four businesses. When she was about 12 years old, white people found a way to swindle her family, her grand-uncle, out of the businesses, and on some kind of trumped up charges. It was so depressing to her grandfather that he committed suicide, and her daddy became an alcoholic. And her mother, who was a teacher -- her superintendent, realizing she was vulnerable and very attractive, tried to flirt with her and she hit him with an umbrella to beat him off. She got fired and was blacklisted and had to go two counties away to find a job. So that when Jean was like 12 years old, she was not only walking three miles to school, most of the time running, but she had to come home and cook and take care of her father, and she was very bitter about race. Now, Coretta had the same kind of experience. I mean, Coretta's father had three different businesses that were destroyed by white people: a trucking company, a sawmill, and a grocery store. They were all sabotaged or burned because it was a county that resented black people having progress, being able to progress and being hard workers. So both Coretta and Jean were more committed, I think, to get into the struggle to do something about race than either me or Martin.

Andrew Young Interview Photo
Andrew Young Interview Photo

Do you think that Coretta pulled Martin into the Civil Rights Movement?

Andrew Young: I don't think she pulled him in...

I think he chose Montgomery, Alabama for all the wrong reasons. He wanted to finish his Ph.D. dissertation, and he picked the most conservative church in the South, where he'd have the most time to devote to his writing, and the least controversy. He was offered jobs in Atlanta and Philadelphia -- and he turned all of those down -- where they saw his leadership potential. He picked the most conservative job he was offered. He went to Montgomery to get away from the controversy. Atlanta was very aggressive. W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, Whitney Young were all in Atlanta. His father and his grandfather were both civil rights leaders in Georgia. And they wanted -- Dr. Mays wanted -- him to take over as president of Morehouse College. He was trying to get away from all of that leadership responsibility by picking Montgomery.

So what pushed Dr. King into a leadership role?

Andrew Young: Nothing. I mean, God. That is the only explanation.

Two weeks after he finished his dissertation and mailed it back to Boston University, Rosa Parks sat down in a bus. He didn't know anything about it, he didn't plan it. But there was a group of women who were teachers at Tuskegee Institute and Alabama State University in Montgomery. It was kind of a progressive women's club. They had been very upset about the way people were treated on the buses. Several young black women had been jailed, beaten, brutalized on the buses. But they didn't feel as though they were -- they were looking for the right person to start a protest. Well, Rosa Parks was one of the sweetest women in the world. She never raised her voice, everybody in town respected her. When they put her off the bus and took her to jail, they had their candidate. These women went to E.D. Nixon, who was the head of the NAACP, and they said, "Look, if you have the big Baptist minister or the big Methodist minister head this movement, we're going to have the same old rivalry we've always had. Why don't you try to convince them to let this young man..." -- now he was 26 then -- "Let this young man lead the movement." So.

Did he balk at that responsibility?

Andrew Young: He didn't have a choice.

When they were having the discussion and the vote, I understand, he was back in the back, running the mimeograph machine, doing flyers for the boycott. So when they came and got him and he came back in the meeting, and they told him he had been elected the president, it was like 6:30, 7:00 at night. He had one hour to prepare to get up and give a speech that had to be militant enough to galvanize people, but it had to be reasoned, and passive enough to keep people's anger from boiling over into violence. The only reason we know about that was Coretta had just had her baby, Yolanda, and she couldn't come. She got the choir director from Alabama A&M to take one of these big two-reel tape recorders, because she didn't know what he was going to say. He didn't have time. But she got -- I think his name was Robert Williams -- to go there and record the speech. And if you want to hear it, the best way to hear it is by ordering The Autobiography of Martin Luther King by Clayborne Carson of Stanford University. What he's done is, it's an oral history, but Martin's words are read by LeVar Burton, until it's time for the speeches, and then they have the actual recording of his voice. So when you read about the context in which this speech emerged, it's miraculous. But all of the themes that later occurred in the March on Washington, his Nobel Prize speech and the Mountaintop speech, you can see glimpses of that. Not even whole sentences, but you can see that at 26 years old, this was the seed of a powerful international voice.

(Hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s first historic speech.)

Andrew Young: I didn't know him then. That was 1955. I didn't meet him until two years later, in 1957, when he was already a big shot and I was pastoring a little country church in South Georgia. The Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity invited us to Talladega College in Alabama for a religious emphasis week. I always said they invited him and they didn't think he would come, so they invited me as a backup, and it turned out we both showed up. That's when we met in 1957, and when my wife was with me, he started talking to her and realized that she and Coretta had known each other in high school. So he invited us to stop back at his home as we were driving back to Georgia. So we stopped off and had dinner with him. I remember that I knew who he was and I'd read about him, and I kept trying to talk civil rights or theology, or trying to -- I don't know what I was trying to do -- but he wouldn't talk about anything but his baby. He was crazy about this little girl. Of course, I had a three-month-old daughter too, so we met as fathers who married women from the same little country town.

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