Reference Entry

Young, Whitney Moore, Jr.

Ralph E. Luker

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Young, Whitney Moore, Jr.

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social worker and civil rights activist, was born in Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky, the son of Whitney Moore Young Sr., president of Lincoln Institute, a private African American college, and Laura Ray, a schoolteacher. Raised within the community of the private academy and its biracial faculty, Whitney Young Jr. and his two sisters were sheltered from harsh confrontations with racial discrimination in their early lives, but they attended segregated public elementary schools for African American children and completed high school at Lincoln Institute. In 1937 Young, planning to become a doctor, entered Kentucky State Industrial College at Frankfort, where he received a BS in 1941. After graduation he became an assistant principal and athletic coach at Julius Rosenwald High School in Madison, Kentucky.After joining the U.S. Army in 1942, Young studied engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1944 he married Margaret Buckner, a teacher whom he had met while they were both students at Kentucky State; they had two children. Sent to Europe later in 1944, Young rose from private to first sergeant in the all-black 369th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Group. His experience in a segregated army on the eve of President Harry Truman's desegregation order drew Young to the challenges of racial diplomacy. In 1946, after his discharge from the army, he entered graduate study in social work at the University of Minnesota. His field placement in graduate school was with the Minneapolis chapter of the National Urban League, which sought increased employment opportunities for African American workers. In 1948 Young completed his master's degree in Social Work and became industrial relations secretary of the St. Paul, Minnesota, chapter of the Urban League. In 1950 he became the director of the Urban League chapter in Omaha, Nebraska. He increased both the Omaha chapter's membership and its operating budget. He became skilled at working with the city's business and political leaders to increase employment opportunities for African Americans. In Omaha he also taught in the University of Nebraska's School of Social Work.In 1954 Young became dean of the School of Social Work at Atlanta University. As an administrator, he doubled the school's budget, raised faculty salaries, and insisted on professional development. In these early years after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Young played a significant advisory role within the leadership of Atlanta's African American community. He was active in the Greater Atlanta Council on Human Relations and a member of the executive committee of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP. He also helped to organize Atlanta's Committee for Cooperative Action, a group of business and professional people who sought to coordinate the social and political action of varied black interest groups and organized patrols in African American communities threatened by white violence. He took a leave of absence from his position at Atlanta University in the 1960–1961 academic year to be a visiting Rockefeller Foundation scholar at Harvard University.In January 1961 the National Urban League announced Whitney Young's appointment to succeed Lester B. Granger as its executive director. Beginning his new work in fall 1961, Young came to the leadership of the Urban League just after the first wave of sit-in demonstrations and freedom rides had drawn national attention to new forms of civil rights activism in the South. Among the major organizations identified with the civil rights movement, the Urban League was the most conservative and the least inclined to favor public demonstrations for social change. Young was resolved to move it into a firmer alliance with the other major civil rights organizations without threatening the confidence of the Urban League's powerful inside contacts. In 1963 he led it into joining the March on Washington and the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, a consortium initiated by Kennedy administration officials and white philanthropists to facilitate fund-raising and joint planning.Whitney Moore Young Jr. (center) meets with President Kennedy and Henry Steeger (right) at the White House in 1962. (Library of Congress.)In his ten years as executive director of the Urban League, Young increased the number of its local chapters from sixty to ninety-eight, its staff from 500 to 1,200, and its funding by corporations, foundations, and federal grants. After the assassination of President John Kennedy, Young developed even stronger ties with President Lyndon Johnson's administration. Perhaps Young's most important influence lay in his call for a “Domestic Marshall Plan,” outlined in his book To Be Equal (1964), which influenced President Johnson's War on Poverty programs.By the mid-1960s, however, the civil rights coalition had begun to fray. In June 1966 Young and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP refused to sign a manifesto drafted by other civil rights leaders or to join them when they continued the march of James Meredith from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. Young continued to shun the black power rhetoric popular with new leaders of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Simultaneously, in consideration of the vital alliance with the Johnson administration, he was publicly critical of Martin Luther King Jr.'s condemnation of the U.S. pursuit of the war in Vietnam. At the administration's request, he twice visited South Vietnam to review American forces and observe elections there. Before Young left office in 1969, Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian citation.After Richard Nixon's inauguration in 1969, however, Young modified his earlier positions, condemning the war in Vietnam and responding to the Black Power movement and urban violence by concentrating Urban League resources on young people in the urban black underclass. He continued to have significant influence, serving on the boards of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, MIT, and the Rockefeller Foundation and as president of the National Conference on Social Welfare (1967) and of the National Association of Social Workers (1969–1971). Subsequently, Young's successors as executive director of the Urban League, Arthur Fletcher, Vernon Jordan, and John Jacob, maintained his legacy of commitment to the goals of the civil rights movement by sustained engagement with centers of American economic and political power.In March 1971, while Young was at a conference on relations between Africa and the United States in Lagos, Nigeria, he suffered either a brain hemorrhage or a heart attack and drowned while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Former attorney general Ramsey Clark and others who were swimming with him pulled Young's body from the water, but their efforts to revive him were to no avail.

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Subjects: History

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