Whitney Young Jr., born to president of the Lincoln Institute, Whitney Young Sr., was cut out for great feats and he showed an inkling when he graduated as his class valedictorian at the Lincoln Institute – a black high school.
It was therefore tragic news when the Shelby County, Kentucky native died of a heart attack on March 11, 1971 at 49, while attending a conference in Lagos, Nigeria sponsored by the African American Institute. Speculation was rife he must have been assassinated.
Young earned a Bachelor of Science in social work from Kentucky State University, a HBCU with an eye on becoming a doctor.
When World War II arrived, Young moved from private to first sergeant in weeks thanks to his mediation and negotiations as he was assigned to a road construction crew of black soldiers supervised by southern white officers.
On October 1, 1961 at age 40, Young became Executive Director of the National Urban League “expanding the organization from 38 employees to 1,600, and from an annual budget of $325,000 to one of $6,100,000.” He led the league till his death in 1971.
Crucially for Young, he had access to the U.S. presidential office and was a close adviser to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. In 1969, President Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award bestowed on a civilian in the United States.
As one of the most celebrated leaders of the Civil Rights era, Young faced a peculiar situation. While King and Thurgood Marshall waged the war on the streets and courts respectively, Young negotiated better terms for black people in the boardrooms. He helped thousands of people struggling against discrimination but “because those in power were the same white elite that he shook hands, made deals, and worked with behind the scenes, he was also one of the most controversial figures in the Civil Rights movement and viewed by some as an “Uncle Tom”.”
Young was the liaison to the White House and the March on Washington organizers during President Johnson’s time. A close ally of Martin Luther King, Jr., Young also pushed for federal aid to cities, proposing a domestic “Marshall plan” to cost $145 billion in spending over 10 years.
“Young was considered the appropriate mediator between the White House and Civil Rights Organizers because he understood power, he understood politics, and most of all he understood people.”
The Black Power movement notables saw Young as too conservative. He nonetheless adopted “the New Thrust program in the late 1960s, which focused on the direct economic empowerment and actualization of urban communities.”
Young summed up his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement by saying: “I am 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, an effective hope of the hopeless.”
A highly effective mediator between the white establishment and the African American community, Young used his diplomatic skills to open the economic doors of opportunity for African-Americans previously denied entry to corporate America.
The son of the first postmistress in Kentucky trained as an electrical engineer at MIT and earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Minnesota in 1947, teaching at the University of Nebraska, Creighton University, and Atlanta University where he became Dean of Social Work.
He later served as president of the National Association of Social Workers and as President of the Omaha Chapter of the National Urban League in 1950, helping black workers get jobs previously reserved only for whites.
Young was close friends with Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, as well as CEOs like Henry Ford II.
His sudden death in 1971 in Lagos, Nigeria, shocked the nation. President Richard Nixon sent a special Air Force jet to retrieve his body. Nixon delivered the eulogy at Young’s funeral, stating “… Whitney Young’s genius was: he knew how to accomplish what other people were merely for.”
His funeral was attended by over 6,000 people, including Coretta Scott King.