Reference Entry

Young, Whitney

Rashauna R. Johnson

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Young, Whitney

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social worker and president of the National Urban League whose negotiation and fundraising efforts garnered millions of dollars in support of civil rights and urban empowerment initiatives. Whitney M. Young Jr. was born in Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky, to Laura Ray Young, the country's second black postmistress, and Whitney M. Young Sr., president of Lincoln Institute, the local high school modeled after Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute. Young graduated valedictorian from the Institute and attended Kentucky State College for Negroes (later Kentucky State University). In 1944, he married Margaret Buckner, also a graduate of Kentucky State. Young served in the army during World War II, where Jim Crow policies prompted protests on the home front and heightened tensions between white officers and black soldiers abroad. Young proved an effective mediator, and this experience inspired him to pursue a career in social work and race relations. In 1946, he began graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, writing his master's thesis on the Saint Paul Urban League, a branch of the National Urban League (NUL). The national organization, founded in 1910, assisted and empowered black migrants fleeing the rural South for the urban North during the Great Migration. Young worked first for the Saint Paul Urban League, then served as executive director of the Omaha Urban League from 1950 to 1953. In 1954, he moved south to head Atlanta University's School of Social Work, where he became a nationally recognized expert on desegregation.In 1961, following a year of graduate study at Harvard University, Young succeeded Lester Granger as executive director of the National Urban League. Under Granger's leadership, the organization had gained a reputation for conservatism in contrast to the increasingly radical direct-action campaigns of grassroots leaders. Under Young's leadership, however, the national organization became a premier civil rights organization, with its income increasing over 1,300 percent between 1961 and 1968. The NUL and the NAACP remained distinct from the other civil rights organizations, because those two national organizations generally did not engage in the direct-action campaigns (such as boycotts, sit-ins, and protests) that other civil rights organizations employed. Despite tactical and ideological differences, Young's Urban League allied with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph's Negro American Labor Council, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to form the “Big Six” coalition behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While the event is remembered for Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech, Young's Urban League was among its earliest financial supporters, the initial reluctance of some League contributors and members notwithstanding.Young's 1964 book To Be Equal advocated a massive “Domestic Marshall Plan” to address the social and economic forces that maintained racial inequality, and his plan greatly influenced President Johnson's “War on Poverty” programs. By the late 1960s, however, the Black Power and antiwar movements competed with Young's integrationist activism, and, because of his close ties to powerful white philanthropists and his uneven support for grassroots activism, Young sometimes faced derisive labels like “sell-out” and “Uncle Tom.” Nevertheless, Young maintained a significant black constituency and continued to focus on urban affairs, advising the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations and serving on several federal commissions during the widespread urban riots of the late 1960s. He advised major corporations on strategies for workplace desegregation and served as an observer of the 1967 elections in South Vietnam. In 1969, President Nixon awarded Young the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Young's close ties to presidential administrations coupled with his initial reluctance to condemn the Vietnam War placed him at odds with antiwar black activists such as King and SNCC. On the other hand, Young's support for equal employment initiatives and his call for compensatory treatment for past discrimination laid the groundwork for subsequent desegregation and affirmative action policies in employment and education.Young drowned at the age of forty-nine in Lagos, Nigeria, while attending the African American Institute's 1971 dialogue between political and corporate leaders in Africa and America. Thousands of mourners from diverse backgrounds attended his funeral at New York's Riverside Church, and President Nixon delivered the eulogy at Young's burial in Lexington, Kentucky. Young was survived by his wife, Margaret Buckner Young, and their two daughters, Marcia and Lauren.

Reference Entry.  814 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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