WHITNEY MOORE YOUNG, Jr.: SOCIAL WORK ADMINISTRATOR
||by Thomas Blair, Harvard College '03
Whitney Moore Young,
Jr. was born in Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky, on July 31, 192, into
rather unusual circumstances. His family was black and lived in
the South, but they were constituents of a black educated elite,
as his father was the president of Lincoln Institute, the black
boarding school that Young eventually would attend. His mother,
the former Laura Ray, was a teacher at that school. Thus, as children,
the Youngs never doubted that they could be educated and successful
members of society.
After graduating from the Institute as valedictorian, Young continued
on to Kentucky State Industrial College, a historically black
institution, with the hope of becoming a doctor. His aspirations
changed, however, after he had taken a year of premedical courses.
He taught at a nearby school for a year, and then decided to join
the Army. In 1944, after studying engineering for two years at
MIT, he found himself in Europe in an all-black regiment with
a white captain. More often than not, Young acted as a mediator
between that captain and the troops, defusing the imminent racial
tension. Here Young's legendary skill as a "powerbroker" between
whites and blacks was cultivated. The experience in the Army influenced
him enough to lead him in to social work. On the topic, he commented
to Joseph Wershba of the New York Post, "It was my Army experience
that decided me on getting into the race relations field after
the war. Not just because I saw the problems, but because I saw
the potentials, too. I grew up with a basic belief in the inherent
decency of human beings."
with his wife and daughters.
In 1946, he received his B.S. from Kentucky State Industrial
College, at which point he headed to the University of Minnesota
to pursue graduate study in social work. Minnesota, specifically
St. Paul, is where Young was first introduced to the Urban League.
Over the next three years he supervised fieldwork of University
of Minnesota and Atlanta University social work students.
was known as an articulate and refined man, and this reputation
allowed him to move relatively freely between various social circles.
In Minnesota, he was acquainted with future vice-president Hubert
Humphrey, who was mayor of Minneapolis from 1945-1948.
Upon accepting a position as executive secretary of the Omaha,
Nebraska Urban League, Young was offered teaching positions at
the University of Nebraska (1950-1954) and Creighton University
Until 1954 Young had been fighting for the civil rights of blacks,
but there was still a sense of incompletion in his work. The opportunity
to become directly involved on the civil rights battlegrounds
of the South arrived when he became dean of the Atlanta University
School of Social Work.
At this point, Young also became a member of the Atlanta Unitarian
Churc, and thus forced it to face racism directly. The summer
after he joined the church had planned its annual picnic, and
it would take place in a park that did not accommodate blacks.
Young was surprised, that the white church members had never thought
about the possible offense in utilizing such a venue, and he protested.
The church agreed that beginning with the next picnic, a different
place would be used. Despite this bittersweet victory, Young would
remain a Unitarian, joining the White Plains Church Community
Church in New York.
Luther King Jr., President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Whitney
M. Young Jr., January 18, 1964. Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto,
Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.
The School of Social Work had a storied past as an innovative
and proactive institution in the 1930s and 40s, but its reputation
had taken a downturn in the 50s. The challenge was an attractive
one for Young, and he met it by enlarging the faculty and the
budget, creating additional training programs, and reshuffling
Young also decided to take a more direct hand in civil rights
activities in Atlanta by co-chairing the Atlanta Council on Human
Relations, and he was instrumental in desegregating the public
Ironically, the effects of discrimination eventually convinced
Young to leave the South. In 1960 he received a Rockefeller grant
to study for a year at Harvard University, and in 1961 a golden
opportunity presented itself. He was offered and accepted a job
as president of the National Urban League, succeeding Lester B.
Granger. As the president he revolutionized the inner workings
of the League, using his connections to tap funding sources like
the Rockefeller family. Under his presidency, the budget was increased
tenfold, the staff was quadrupled, and the number of regional
offices increased from 63 to 98. His "Operation Rescue" had in
fact revitalized the Urban League.
with President John E. Sawyer at the 1968 Williams College
commencement. Courtesy of the Williams College Archives
and Special Collections.
Not all, however, viewed Young as a legitimate voice of black
concerns. Among a portion of the black community, he was considered
to be an instrument of the general white population in that he appeared
to be too passive and accepting of society.
In effect, he was constantly navigating a fine line to be accepted
by whites and blacks. He would speak about the problems of ghetto
life, and then lobby for support from executives of IBM and RCA.
This aspect of his career culminated in 1963, when the League
was asked to support the March on Washington. The League's board
members shied away from endorsing the demonstration because they
perceived it as radical, but Young convinced them that the League's
influence would actually serve to neutralize the radical elements.
The Urban League emerged successfully at the frontier of the civil
The gross inequalities that Young dedicated himself to fighting
were apparent but largely ignored. In a New York Times Magazine
article, he articulated the discrepancy in earnings between the
races. The average white family earned more than twice as much
as the average black family. He observed, "For more than 300 years
the white American has received special consideration or 'preferential
treatment' ... over the Negro. What we ask now is that for a brief
period there be a deliberate and massive effort to include the
Negro citizen in the mainstream of American life." Urged on by
his Unitarian faith, he was determined to make a difference.
The Urban League entered a rough period under the Nixon administration
and was forced to implement government funding to stay afloat.
Young continued to lead with creativity, even adjusting his rhetoric
to be more in line with the Black Power movement in the late 60's
without alienating whites.
Young authored two books: To Be Equal and Beyond
Racism: Building an Open Society.
|Young with John F.
In 1968 the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berekley, CA
honored him with an L.H.D. degree.
Whitney M. Young, Jr. suffered a heart attack while swimming
on March 11, 1971, and died in Lagos, Nigeria, while attending
a conference for black leaders.
Young was married to Margaret Buckner in 1944, and they had two
Beyond Racism: Building an Open Society by
Whitney M. Young, Jr.,( New York: McGraw, 1969).
Militant Mediator: Whitney M. Young, Jr.
by Dennis C. Dickerson, (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky,
Black Leader in a White Denomination: Whitney Young
and the Unitarians by Dennis C. Dickerson (Cambridge: The
Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, Volume XXV, 1998).