Whitney M. 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, Whitney Young used his ability to successfully interact with people, whether on the streets of Harlem or in Fortune 500 boardrooms, to open the economic doors of opportunity for African Americans previously denied entry to corporate America.
Whitney Young attended The Lincoln School, an African American preparatory in Shelby County, Kentucky, on July 31, 1921. His father was president of The Lincoln School and his mother one of the teachers, as well as being the first postmistress in Kentucky. Valedictorian of his senior class, Young graduated in 1941 with a BS in Social Work from Kentucky State University where he played forward on the University basketball team, was vice president of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and president of his senior class. During World War Two, he was trained as an electrical engineer at MIT and was assigned to a black road construction crew supervised by Southern white officers where he was promoted to first sergeant within three weeks. Despite tension and hostility, Young became a mediator between African American soldiers angry over their poor treatment and their white officers. His ability to communicate and be respected by both groups set Mr. Young on a life course of civil rights activism and mediation.
Earning a Masters in Social Work from the University of Minnesota in 1947, Young taught at the University of Nebraska, Creighton University, and became Dean of Social Work at Atlanta University, later serving as president of the National Association of Social Workers. President of the Omaha Chapter of the National Urban League in 1950, he helped black workers get jobs previously reserved only for whites. In 1961, at age 40, he was elected Executive Director and transformed the traditionally cautious National Urban League into an organization at the forefront of the American Civil Rights Movement. During his leadership, Mr. Young created the “Street Academy” to help prepare high school dropouts for college and the “New Thrust” to help identify and solve community problems. A key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, he was a close friends with Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, as well as CEO’s like Henry Ford II. Advisor to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, Young developed the “Domestic Marshall Plan” which Johnson incorporated into his Great Society program. In 1969 President Johnson awarded Whitney Young the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award bestowed on a civilian in the United States.
On March 11, 1971, Whitney Young died of a heart attack in Lagos, Nigeria, at the age of 49 while attending a conference sponsored by the African American Institute. President Richard 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.”