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Andrew Young Biography

Learned from King, Joined Political Process, Became UN Ambassador, Elected Mayor of Atlanta


Politician, civil rights activist

Young, Andrew, photograph. © 1989 Landov LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.

As a civil rights activist in the turbulent 1960s and one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s most trusted lieutenants, Andrew Young earned a reputation for tact and diplomacy. As an outspoken ambassador to the United Nations (UN) under the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, he often stirred controversy. Young's dynamic style of balancing principle and pragmatism has confused and angered some, but has won the respect of opponents as well as allies, rendering him one of the most effective and influential African-American political leaders of the twentieth century.

The son of a dentist and a teacher, Young grew up in a predominantly Italian and Irish neighborhood in New Orleans, which, like other southern cities, was generally segregated. His parents tried to shield him from racism but, Young recalled in Time in 1979, "I was taught to fight when people called me 'Nigger.'" He continued, "That's when I learned that negotiating was better than fighting."

Young had learned to read and write before he started school and graduated from high school at the age of 15. In the fall of 1947 he entered Howard University, where he majored in biology, preparing to follow his father into dentistry. As he later acknowledged, though, he was more interested in the social side of college life. Still, Young was inspired by Howard's president, Mordecai Johnson, an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi who did much to spread the Indian activist's principles of nonviolent resistance among young African-Americans. In his senior year, Young became disillusioned with the superficiality and snobbery he felt was common among his classmates, and an encounter with a young white man who was on his way to Africa to do missionary work brought him to a point of decision: he abandoned his plans for dental school and decided to become a minister.

Learned from King

Young went north to study at Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut and, upon his ordination as a minister of the United Church of Christ in 1955, was sent south to be a pastor in the small towns of Marion, Alabama, and Thomasville and Beachton, Georgia. The civil rights movement, under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, was entering a new phase: the strategy of legal action initiated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was being supplemented by Gandhian tactics of civil disobedience, boycotts, and other direct action. Inspired by the example of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, Young began organizing his parishioners into community action groups and leading voter registration drives, in spite of threats from the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan.

In 1957 Young went north again, this time to serve as associate director of the Department of Youth Work of the National Council of Churches. In his four years in the council's New York office, he developed the administrative and political skills that he would later put to good use in the civil rights movement, Congress, and the United Nations. In 1961, the United Church of Christ began a voter education program aimed at southern blacks, and Young was chosen to lead it. Back in Atlanta, he became involved with King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and in 1962 became King's administrative assistant. It was a difficult role that Young handled deftly. As fellow activist and later Georgia State Senator Julian Bond put it in the New York Times in 1976, "King was the spear thrower, and Andy came behind and put it all together. He could be the man on the tightrope and he never slipped."

Young took over as SCLC's executive director in 1964 and remained at King's side during campaigns throughout the South and in Chicago, accompanying King and the SCLC in the antiwar movement and movements for economic justice. Young, like most of the other SCLC leaders, opposed King's decision to go to Memphis, Tennessee, to support the sanitation workers' strike in 1968, but eventually joined the effort. He was standing in the courtyard of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, when he heard the gunshot that ended King's life.

In the aftermath of King's assassination, Young, Abernathy, and the other SCLC ministers carried on the leader's work. But in the late 1960s support for the discipline of nonviolence ebbed, and without its charismatic leader the SCLC was less effective. After a series of exhausting battles in support of black workers and the poor, Young decided to change his own direction. In 1970 he announced that he would run for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from Georgia's fifth district.

At a Glance …

Born Andrew Jackson Young Jr. on March 12, 1932, in New Orleans, LA; son of Andrew Jackson (a dentist) and Daisy (maiden name, Fuller; a teacher) Young; married Jean Childs, 1954 (died 1994); married Carolyn McClain, 1996; children: Andrea, Lisa, Paula, Andrew III. Education: Howard University, BS, 1951; Hartford Theological Seminary, BDiv, 1955.

Career: United Church of Christ, Marion, AL, and Thomasville and Beachton, GA, pastor, 1955-57; National Council of Churches, New York City, associate director for youth work, 1957-61; United Church of Christ Christian Education Program, Atlanta, GA, administrator, 1961-64; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), administrative assistant, 1962-64, executive director, 1964-68, executive vice-president, 1968-70; Atlanta Community Relations Commission, chair, 1970-72; U.S. House of Representatives, congressman from Georgia's fifth district, 1972-76; U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, 1977-79; Atlanta, Georgia, mayor, 1982-90; Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, chair, 1990; National Council of Churches, president, 2000-2001. Founder and head of Young Ideas, a consulting firm; chairman, GoodWorks International.

Selected Memberships: Member of board of directors of Delta Air Lines, Argus, Host Marriott Corp., Archer Daniels Midland, Cox Communications, Thomas Nelson Publishing, Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Selected Awards: Pax-Christi Award, St. Johns University, 1970; Spingarn Medal, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1978; Presidential Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Jimmy Carter, 1980; numerous honorary degrees.

Addresses: Office—Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA 30303-3084.

Joined Political Process

Southern politics had changed during Young's years in Atlanta. A black man, Maynard Jackson, had recently been elected vice-mayor, and blacks and liberals were contesting elections throughout the state. In the fifth district, which was 40 percent black, Young found himself opposed in the primary by two white candidates and one black. He won the primary but lost the general election, in part due to low turnout by black voters.

In the aftermath of the election, Young was appointed chair of the Community Relations Commission (CRC). Though the CRC was an advisory group with no enforcement powers, Young took an activist role, pressing the city government on many issues, from sanitation and open housing to mass transit, consumer affairs, and Atlanta's drug problem. By the time the 1972 election approached, he had a higher public profile as well as an answer to critics who had called him inexperienced in government.

The election of 1972 was a hard-fought campaign waged against the background of the Richard Nixon-George McGovern contest for the presidency. In November of 1972, in spite of the Republican landslide in the presidential race, Young won with nearly 53 percent of the vote in a district that was 62 percent white, without the benefit of an exceptionally large black turnout. He was the first black representative to be elected from the South in 70 years as well as the first from Georgia since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period.

Young believed in the "New South" and the potential of the coalition of blacks, white liberals, and labor voters who had elected him. Though he upheld his vocal stand on racial issues, he told an Ebony correspondent, "I've never been given to a lot of blacker-than-thou rhetoric and that will not be the style that I'll adopt in Washington. You cannot serve a black issue by approaching it as such—or not in this Congress. Instead you must plug for jobs…or a day-care program, or some similar goal." As Young had said during the campaign, "The main role of a congressman is to bring together a variety of opinions that a lot of people can support."

Young quickly proved himself adept at the negotiating and committee work that make legislation pass. His biographer, Carl Gardner, quoted Congressman Morris Udall as saying that Young "could make public statements and play to public opinion and get attention. But he doesn't. He plays the inside game, works within the Congress, and does it very effectively." Fellow Democratic Representative Shirley Chisholm praised his leadership qualities, noting his skill in mediating within the Congressional Black Caucus. Young also became known his willingness to take a public stand on principle, appearing before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee to defend the principle of affirmative action and publicly criticize President Nixon for slowing progress on civil rights.

Young easily won re-election in 1974 and 1976. In 1976 he was also deeply involved in the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter, whom he had known since 1970 when they were both newcomers to Georgia politics. Young was the first prominent black politician to endorse Carter and was given much of the credit for Carter's good showing among black voters in the primaries and the general election.

Became UN Ambassador

It was no surprise when Young resigned his congressional seat to take the post of ambassador to the United Nations. Though the UN ambassador had traditionally been little more than a mouthpiece for the State Department, Young immediately made it known that he would not be confined by tradition. "I wanted [Secretary of State] Cyrus Vance to understand my kind of independent style," he told a New York Times reporter. "There is a sense in which the United States Ambassador speaks to the United States, as well as for the United States. I have always seen my role as a thermostat, rather than a thermometer. So I'm going to be actively working…for my own concerns. I have always had people advise me on what to say, but never on what not to say."

During the two and a half years of his tenure at the UN, Young frequently expressed his opinions. Many of his statements were controversial, and several conflicted with official U.S. policy, as when he stated the day after he was sworn in that Cuban troops had brought "a certain stability and order" to Angola. He was particularly outspoken on African issues, in which he had taken a strong interest since his election to Congress. He visited the continent several times and took an active role in trying to resolve disputes there. His attacks on apartheid—a racially segregated form of government—in South Africa, including his questioning of the legitimacy of the South African government, outraged American conservatives, as did his attacks on human rights violations and racism in the United States and throughout the world.

Though there were periodic calls for his resignation and the State Department was occasionally forced to issue statements denying that Andrew Young spoke for the government of the United States, he kept Carter's support. This was in large part due to the fact that he was the first American official in years—perhaps ever—to achieve real credibility in the Third World.

Many wondered why Young, previously known for his tact, had begun delivering statements that were seen as outrageous, especially since he had become a diplomat. But Young, Gardner wrote, saw himself as a "point man," the lead soldier in an infantry patrol, the one who scouts out dangerous territory and is most likely to draw enemy fire. Young said he had told Secretary of State Vance "that there were a number of things the American people were thinking about. I told him that if he did not mind, I would raise controversial points and talk about them."

Ironically, Young's downfall came in August of 1979, not because of a public statement, but because of an attempt at quiet diplomacy. Trying to forestall a UN Security Council debate on Palestinian rights that he believed would be detrimental to U.S. efforts to advance peace negotiations in the Middle East, he met with Zehdi Labib Terzi, the UN observer for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This was a violation of explicit State Department rules prohibiting official contact with the PLO, and when news of the meeting was leaked to the press, Young was forced to resign. He did so without any sign of anger or repentance: "It is very difficult to do the things that I think are in the interest of the country and maintain the standards of protocol and diplomacy," a Time correspondent quoted him as saying. "I really don't feel a bit sorry for anything that I have done. And I could not say to anybody that given the same situation I wouldn't do it again almost exactly the same way."

Elected Mayor of Atlanta

Young returned to private life for two years, devoting himself to his consulting firm, Young Ideas. In 1981, at the urging of Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., and other black Atlantans, he decided to run for mayor. "I'm a public person," he explained in the New Republic, "and there's nothing more exciting than America's cities." After a bitterly fought campaign and an election tainted by racial overtones, Young won with 55 percent of the vote. U.S. News & World Report predicted that "whatever skills Andrew Young had as a diplomat will be needed to curb racial divisions and a host of other troubles that boiled up in his election." The "other troubles" included a massive budget deficit, widespread poverty, a rising crime rate, and the flight of white residents to the suburbs.

Some critics doubted Young's ability to deal with the Atlanta's problems. He was seen as antibusiness, a weak administrator, and too much of an activist to "bridge the racial gap," as one Georgia politician put it in the New Republic. Young quickly proved his critics wrong. By 1984, Ebony reported, the city had been so successful at attracting new businesses that it was experiencing "a major growth spurt," and by 1988, U.S. News & World Report noted, a survey of 385 executives showed that Atlanta was "their overwhelming first choice to locate a business." In addition, the crime rate dropped sharply, and racial harmony seemed an established fact.

Though African-Americans dominated the city's politics and whites dominated its economy, both groups seemed willing to work together. "My job," Young told Esquire' s Art Harris in 1985, "is to see that whites get some of the power and blacks get some of the money." Some black leaders accused Young of catering exclusively to the white business establishment and neglecting the black poor, but he garnered the support of Atlanta's growing black middle class and was reelected decisively in 1985.

Limited by law to two terms as mayor, Young decided to run for governor of Georgia in 1990. "It's something I have to do," he told Robin Toner of the New York Times. "If I don't get elected I think I'd probably say 'Free at last.' But I have to give it my best possible shot." Young ran primarily on his record of presiding over Atlanta's economic boom; he was criticized, however, for not being a "hands-on" mayor, and was blamed for Atlanta's crime rate, which had risen again after falling during the early years of his administration.

There was also the issue of race. Though Young was popular with younger, suburban whites, many rural and small-town white Georgians still hesitated to vote for a black man. Young made it through the first stage of the primary, but was defeated by Lieutenant Governor Zell Miller in a runoff that featured a low black turnout.

Played Role of Elder Statesman

The loss left Young free to concentrate on another project—preparing Atlanta to host the 1996 Olympic games. As chairman of the Atlanta Organizing Committee, he was, according to Black Enterprise' s Alfred Edmond, Jr., "the reason Atlanta was able to capture and hold the attention of the IOC [International Olympic Committee]." Young's diplomatic experience was important in Atlanta's winning the bid over such contenders as Athens, Greece and Melbourne, Australia: "I knew government officials and business people in almost every country represented in the IOC," he told Edmond. "Our approach was intensely personal." The Atlanta Olympics were a major success, yet another feather in the cap of one of America's most effective political leaders.

On a personal level, the 1990s offered a number of challenges for Young. In 1991, his wife, Jean, learned that she had cancer of the colon that had metastasized to her liver. Following a long battle with the cancer, Jean died on September 16, 1994. Also in 1991, Young's son Bo, a freshman at Howard University, was stopped by police a block from campus and beaten in full view of witnesses, for no apparent reason. An investigation later cleared the Washington, D.C., police from any wrongdoing. And in 1999, Young waged a successful battle of his own against prostate cancer.

Young's work with the Olympics was characteristic of the many ventures he took on as a senior statesman. Young served for a time as chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and as vice chairman of Law Companies Group, a consulting firm. Young also served as chairman of GoodWorks International, a consulting group for global economics, and held a public affairs professorship at Georgia State University's Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. He was asked to serve on the board of directors of numerous companies and organizations, including Delta Air Lines, Argus, Host Marriott Corp., Archer Daniels Midland, Cox Communications, Thomas Nelson Publishing, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In April 1996, Young remarried Carolyn McClain, a longtime family friend, in Cape Town, South Africa. The couple lives in Atlanta.

No matter the position, Young has remained "a preacher and a moralist," observed Joseph Lelyveld in the New York Times. Nowhere was this more true than when he accepted the presidency of the National Council of Churches (NCC) for 2000-2001. On taking that position, Young said he would be talking more about poverty and less and less about racism because "racism is one of the symptoms of poverty and insecurity." He added, "most of the problems we face in America, whether crime or education problems or hate groups, are derived from what Martin Luther King used to call 'the lonely islands of poverty in the midst of this ocean of material wealth.'" Though he was withdrawing from more active roles in the 2000s, Young remained a powerful voice for progressive political change in America.

Selected writings

A Way Out of No Way: The Spiritual Memoirs of Andrew Young, T. Nelson, 1994.

An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, HarperCollins, 1996.



DeRoche, Andrew, Andrew Young: Civil Rights Ambassador, Scholarly Resources, 2003.

Gardner, Carl, Andrew Young: A Biography, Drake, 1978.

Jones, Bartlett C. Flawed Triumphs: Andy Young at the United Nations, University Press of America, 1996.


Black Enterprise, January 1991.

Ebony, February 1973; August 1984.

Esquire, June 1985.

Jet, August 20, 2001.

New Republic, September 23, 1981.

New York Times, December 17, 1976; February 6, 1977; August 16, 1979; May 22, 1990.

Time, August 27, 1979.

U.S. News & World Report, November 9, 1981; July 25, 1988.


"Andrew Young," Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University, www.gsu.edu/~wwwsps/people/YoungA.htm (September 14, 2004).

"NCC President 2000-2001: Ambassador Andrew Young," National Council of Churches USA, www.ncccusa.org/about/young.html (September 14, 2004).

—Tim Connor and

Tom Pendergast

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