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Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights

by Nancy Joan Weiss

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Whitney M. Young, Jr., the charismatic executive director of the National Urban League from 1961 to 1971, bridged the worlds of race and power. The "inside man" of the black revolution, he served as interpreter between black America and the businessmen, foundation executives, and public officials who constituted the white power structure. In this stimulating biography


Whitney M. Young, Jr., the charismatic executive director of the National Urban League from 1961 to 1971, bridged the worlds of race and power. The "inside man" of the black revolution, he served as interpreter between black America and the businessmen, foundation executives, and public officials who constituted the white power structure. In this stimulating biography, Nancy J. Weiss shows how Young accomplished what Jesse Jackson called the toughest job in the black movement: selling civil rights to the nation's most powerful whites. With race at center stage in American national politics, Young brought the National Urban League into the civil rights movement and made it a force in the major events and debates of the decade. Within the civil rights leadership, he played an important role as strategist and mediator. A black man who grew up in a middle class family in the segregated South, Young spent most of his adult life in the white world, transcending barriers of race, wealth, and social standing to advance the welfare of black Americans. His goals were to gain access for blacks to good jobs, education, housing, health care, and social services; his tactics were reason, persuasion, and negotiation. He understood keenly the value to the movement of creative tension between moderates and militants, and he took good advantage of that understanding to promote his aims. Andrew Young said of Whitney Young that he knew the "high art of how to get power from the powerful and share it with the powerless." How he managed that, and with what consequence, is the central theme of this book.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Of the many recent books on the U.S. civil rights movement, this is the first to focus on the role of Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League (1961-71). The author of this solidly researched, clearly written biography argues that Young served an often overlooked and thankless role, carrying the message of the movement to the U.S. power elite. While the author focuses on Young as a complete individual, an effort is made to highlight the necessity of his role in the movement, the relish and vigor with which he played that role, and the recognition of other major civil rights leaders of the importance of that role. This volume fills a niche in the literature detailing the history of the U.S. civil rights movement.-- Joseph Stewart Jr., Univ. of Texas at Dallas, Richardson
A biography of the civil rights leader, the revolution, who directed the National Urban League, and served as interpreter between black America and the businessmen, foundation executives, and public officials who constituted the white power structure. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
Product dimensions:
6.53(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.07(d)

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Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights

By Nancy J. Weiss


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04757-7


Growing Up at Lincoln Institute

* * *

Whitney Young's first encounter with racial prejudice affected him so deeply that he would recall it in vivid detail for the rest of his life. It happened when he was five years old.

He grew up in the sheltered world measured by the 444-acre campus of Lincoln Institute, a boarding high school for blacks in rural Shelby County, Kentucky, where his father was a member of the faculty. The Institute's address, Lincoln Ridge, was simply a post office. The nearest village, Simpsonville, was a mile and a half away; the closest town of any size, Shelbyville, and the nearest city, Louisville, were respectively eight miles to the east and twenty-two miles to the west. Whitney was accustomed to seeing black and white faculty and staff mixing freely on the Lincoln Institute campus, and to seeing his parents treated with respect. Nothing he had experienced had prepared him for the day his parents took him to the movies in Shelbyville.

While his mother and father were buying tickets, the boy walked into the lobby of the theater, where he attracted the attention of an usher. "What are you doing here?" the usher asked angrily. Realizing what was happening, Whitney's mother and father hurried over, scolded the boy, and took him up to the "crow's nest," the segregated balcony reserved for blacks.

The child was bewildered and close to tears. Why did he and his family have to climb several flights of stairs to the balcony? Why did they have to sit in the dirtiest section of the theater? Why, above all, were his parents angry at him instead of at the white man who had questioned him?

"I later understood that they were angry at me out of their concern for me," Young said. "Their anger had to do with the early training that all black youngsters received. How do you survive? How do you get along? You survive by not talking back. You get along by 'staying in your place.'"

It made no difference that Whitney's father was an educator who held a position of respect in the community. He, too, had his place. Uneducated white men from rural areas, unkempt and wearing overalls, were free to take seats on the main floor of the theater. Whitney's father, educated, well dressed, courteous, could not sit with them. "Even at the age of five," Young said later, "I recognized the hypocritical nature of it, the inconsistency of it."

Racism and discrimination in Kentucky may have been less virulent than in the states of the Deep South, but the more civilized tenor of race relations did not change the fact that blacks and whites lived, for the most part, in separate worlds. Kentucky law contained few provisions requiring segregation (the Day Law of 1904, mandating segregated private schools, was the major exception), but the force of custom and, sometimes, city ordinances made up for a relative lack of racism in the state statute books. In schools, parks, places of amusement, libraries, welfare institutions, hospitals, places of employment, and public conveyances, segregation was standard practice.

For a young black child in Kentucky in the 1920s, as for any child, parents were the first and most significant links to the larger society. Caring black parents played a special role as mediators between their children and a usually hostile white world. Interpreters, strategists, molders of values, sources of security and confidence, they gave their children the wherewithal to make their way through the complex patterns of American race relations. In order to understand Whitney Moore Young, Jr., then, one needs to begin with his parents, Whitney, Sr., and Laura Young.

Whitney Moore Young, Sr., was born in 1897 in Midway, Kentucky. His father, Taylor Young, earned a living as a farm laborer, road builder, and sometime horse trader. His mother, Annie Henderson Young, worked as a laundress, a maid, and, later, as a cook at a country club in Lexington. The boy was named for Whitney Moore, the young son of a family for which Annie worked at the time her son was born.

Whitney, Sr., went to elementary school in Frankfort, where he boarded with an aunt, and then attended a normal school in Lexington for two years. In 1912, he enrolled at Lincoln Institute, a boarding high school recently founded by the trustees of Berea College to provide an education for black students who had been excluded from Berea by state law. He worked year-round doing odd jobs in the engineering department to cover his fees and expenses.

The curriculum of the institute was primarily vocational. For girls, the emphasis was on home economics. A model rural home gave students experience in planning a budget, preparing meals, decorating, making clothes, caring for babies, and cleaning house. As well, girls could take a course in pre-nurse's training. The curriculum for boys offered vocational training in agriculture, the building trades, the industrial arts, business administration, and steam and maintenance engineering. In addition, a six-year teacher-training course was available to both sexes.

Whitney, Sr., studied engineering and graduated in 1916. He stayed at Lincoln to teach for a year and then went to Detroit to work as an engineer for the American Car and Foundry Company and the Detroit United Railway. In June 1918, he married Laura Ray, a girl two years his junior whom he had met at Lincoln. Laura came from Lebanon, Kentucky, where her father, Richard Ray, earned his living as a farmer and realtor and served as president of the Marion County Chautauqua. Laura had taken the teacher-training course at Lincoln, and she would teach briefly before her children were born. When Whitney and Laura married, he was three months short of his twenty-first birthday; she had not yet turned nineteen.

Inspired by a U.S. Army recruiting poster — "Don't Read History, Make It" — Whitney, Sr., enlisted in March 1918 and served overseas for the final months of World War I. He was one of more than 12,500 black Kentuckians who served in the armed forces during the war — 14 percent of Kentucky's servicemen. Young was attached to the Ninety-second Division, Company 317 Engineers, which saw action in the Vosges Mountains near Alsace and in the Argonne Forest. He was discharged at the end of April 1919.

Following the war, he took a job as an engineer with Ford Motor Company in Detroit. Soon afterward, when Lincoln Institute asked him to come back to join the faculty as a teacher of engineering, he accepted the offer, took a substantial cut in pay, and returned to Kentucky with his wife and their baby daughter, Arnita, who had been born in Detroit on April 19, 1920. Two more children were born on the Lincoln campus: Whitney, Jr., on July 31, 1921, and Eleanor, on October 10, 1922.

In fact, the offer of a teaching job turned out to be a ploy. When Young arrived at Lincoln, the principal, a white man, called him into his office and said that the board, most of whose members were white, had decided that engineering was too advanced a subject for high school students, but that Young could stay on as the engineer for the school. Young asked what that meant and discovered that he was being offered a job as the school janitor.

Young said that he would think about the offer. Determined to turn the situation to his advantage, he remembered the blacks he had seen sweeping and mopping floors in the new apartment houses in Detroit. As cities grew, there would be many more janitorial jobs available. With proper training, black men could find real opportunities for employment.

Several days later, Young returned to the principal's office and agreed to take the job on the condition that he also be allowed to develop a new course in janitorial engineering. He and his students would take responsibility for tending the school's boiler and doing painting and repairs. But first they would learn the trade from experts who would be brought in to lecture to the class. The trustees were delighted with the idea, and Young got the job as a teacher in addition to his duties as chief campus engineer. Soon he had learned enough from the visiting experts to teach the course himself.

Young taught janitorial engineering, coached football, and served as dean of men. In 1935, he became the school's fifth principal (later called president) and the first black man to head the institute since its founding. He took over at a time of crisis for Lincoln. The school had been attempting to do too much. Enrollment in the six-year teacher-training course, run as a junior college program, was precariously low, and there were too few faculty members to sustain college-level instruction. There was no trained librarian, and the library's holdings were meager. In 1934–1935, the school discontinued its junior college work and narrowed its focus to vocational education.

Even so, the institute was in financial trouble. Its outstanding bills came to $10,000. Enrollment had dropped from a maximum of 131 in the 1920s to 81 in 1934–1935. The physical plant was in very poor condition. There was no prospect of state aid, and the board was ready to close the school.

Young persuaded the trustees to postpone the closing for a few weeks so that he and the school's business manager could operate the institute under what they called the "Faith Plan," whereby faculty and staff would give up their regular salaries on the understanding that they would get a percentage of whatever funds were raised.

Young was confident that they could find a way to keep the school in business, because he knew that Lincoln offered blacks a unique opportunity. Getting a high school education in Kentucky was no easy matter; integrated schools were out of the question thanks to the Day Law, and many counties were too poor to provide separate high schools for blacks. With its boarding facilities, Lincoln could meet the educational needs of black children throughout the state. It had only to find a sufficient number of students.

Young and his faculty and staff traveled across the state to recruit students. They needed to overcome significant obstacles; black families were reluctant to send their children away from home, and whites were not inclined to let the energies of potential farmhands be diverted into book learning. In each community he visited, Young found a large, strong black man to accompany him, both to provide protection against intimidation from whites and to establish some credibility with blacks. He approached black families with a simple message: "You need to give your kids an opportunity to go to high school." The effort paid off with 125 new students signed up to come to Lincoln. By the 1937–1938 school year, enrollment was up to 221.

Within two weeks after the beginning of the "Faith Plan," a black man in Lexington, William Henry Hughes, died and left Lincoln a bequest of $10,000, exactly the sum of the school's outstanding debts. To the staff of the institute, this was a miracle. Hughes had also set up a scholarship fund of almost $100,000, with half of the annual income to go to the University of Kentucky for the education of white students, and the other half, to Kentucky State for the education of blacks. This unexpected generosity changed the minds of the Lincoln trustees. If Hughes would do that much for white students, surely they ought to do what they could for the institute.

Young needed to supplement the Hughes gift to keep his school afloat. He sent teachers and students, often accompanied by one of the campus singing groups, to churches and civic organizations to appeal for funds. The nickels and dimes they collected, as well as some larger contributions, gave the institute sufficient financial support to carry on. Later, partly at Young's urging, the state legislature took steps that ensured the institute's long-term survival. In 1941, the General Assembly passed a law requiring local boards of education to provide all students in their districts with the opportunity to acquire a high school education. A local board could fulfill its obligation by providing high school facilities itself, by transporting students to a nearby school system, or by paying students' tuition and board at a private school. The law enabled the institute to contract with local boards of education to educate their high school-aged blacks. Later, after a fire destroyed the boys' dormitory at Lincoln, Young appealed to the legislature to take over the school, oversee its operations, and provide it with an annual appropriation, changes that were realized in 1947.

Young not only saved the school but set an important example for the community in the process. "My father taught me and all of his students how to accept the unpleasant and to cope with it instead of running away from it," Whitney, Jr., later said. Straitened circumstances meant that everyone had to pitch in to help. Even during his presidency, Young doubled as chief engineer; there were many nights when he had to repair the furnace and the water pumps so that there would be heat and hot water in the dormitories.

At the same time that Young struggled to keep his school afloat, he was determined to see that his own children got a good education. They started off with a tutor, the white woman in charge of the Lincoln Ridge post office. In 1926, at the age of five, Whitney, Jr., entered the second grade at the Lincoln Model School in nearby Simpsonville. The Model School enrolled about thirty black children from Simpsonville, Shelbyville, and the Lincoln campus. A partition divided the small wooden building into two classrooms, one for the first through fourth grades and the other to accommodate grades five through eight. There was no lunch room, so the children all carried lunch buckets; instead of indoor toilets, there was an outhouse behind the school. With just one teacher to cover the range of grade levels in each room, it was important for the older students to help the younger ones with their lessons. Whitney and Arnita were in the same grade while Eleanor was two years behind.

By example and precept, Whitney and Laura Young taught their children to handle themselves with a feeling of self-worth in a rigidly segregated society. Lincoln itself was a kind of oasis. Although the students were all black, the faculty and staff were integrated, and the campus was largely free of racism. ("The white teachers in the school were kind of self-styled missionaries," Whitney, Jr., later wrote, "and their manner toward us was at the worst, patronizing.") Living on the campus meant that the Young children grew up relatively shielded from the more blatant aspects of Southern race relations. Whitney, Jr., reflected that he "only slowly became aware of the limitations placed upon the opportunities open to Negroes." But there was never any doubt in his mind that segregation was man-made, and he said that he never felt inferior to whites.

For all the security of the campus, it was impossible to escape the prejudice and discrimination typical of the South in the 1920s and 1930s. The incident at the movie theater in Shelbyville had given Whitney a stark introduction to the rules governing relations between the races. At the age of eight he learned another lesson, this one about the roles available to black women and black men.

Whitney, Sr., took the boy to town to buy some clothes, and a white salesman sold them an ill-fitting suit. When Laura saw it, she was furious. It fell to her to go back to the store to insist that someone alter the suit or take it back. At first, Whitney, Jr., felt completely bewildered, for it appeared that his mother was the stronger of his parents. Then his bewilderment gave way to sorrow and shame for his father as he came to see that black women carried the burden of doing battle with whites. But as he looked back on the experience years later, he understood how much strength it took for his father to restrain himself. If Whitney, Sr., had gone back to the store and expressed anger at the white clerk, he would have marked himself as "uppity" and jeopardized his work at the institute; if he had been insistent, he might well have been lynched. Laura, like other black women, had more latitude to speak her mind without appearing to threaten the delicate hierarchy of relations between the races.

A strong, imposing woman, Laura Young was the matriarch of Lincoln Institute. She presided over the president's house, a comfortable, three-story, white-columned frame building in the heart of the campus. Faculty, staff, and students responded quickly to her obvious warmth and her outgoing nature and affectionately called her "Mother, Dear." In addition to raising her children and doing whatever she could for the community, she was postmistress of Lincoln Ridge, a job to which she had been appointed in 1929.

By her own example, Laura taught her children about the possibilities for open defiance of the conventions that governed the separation of the races. Going into town, whether to Shelbyville or Louisville, meant confronting the ever-visible reminders that in Kentucky, like the rest of the South, black people were treated as second-class citizens. Signs designating rest rooms and drinking fountains for "White" and "Colored" spelled out the segregation that prevailed in public facilities of all kinds. Laura would have none of it. She persisted in using rest rooms and drinking fountains intended for whites. She tried on clothes in stores, despite the customary prohibition against it in establishments that catered mainly to whites. She refused to allow people to call her by her first name, openly flouting the conventions about forms of address between whites and blacks. She carried herself with such dignity that she commanded a certain measure of respect in return.


Excerpted from Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights by Nancy J. Weiss. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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