1960’s Civil Rights Activist Speaks on Life With and After MLK
As in years past, January brought on the celebration of Martin Luther King Day. There were celebrations all over the United States honoring the legacy of a man who touched so many generations in the fight against racism and inequality. His message of non-violence was fueled by his passion for mankind and his belief in the peaceful teachings of Ghandi.
In the last few days, I had an opportunity to hear Andrew Young speak. Mr. Young, former Congressman and Mayor of the City of Atlanta also served as a diplomat and civil rights activist in addition to being a close friend to Dr. King. He described himself as an assistant to Dr. King and his work but was right there at every turn. Born in 1932 in New Orleans, he knew early on he had to do something to help others.
My children had the chance to chat with him directly for a few moments. When my daughter asked him what the first thought was that ran through his mind as he saw Martin Luther King being killed, his response was “my first thought was he’s going to heaven.” I must admit, I agreed with his line of thinking but it was no secret her question took him by surprise.
A kind, gentle man now in his older years, Mr. Young spoke vividly about his experiences with the movement when we saw him at the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Change in Atlanta. A group of kids from four schools comprising of about 30-40 children on a civil rights tour from Baltimore, Maryland stopped in Atlanta on their way to Selma after requesting his presence to speak about freedom, change, civil rights and more. As the teens along with chaperones of a self-funded annual tour poured into the room, others at the center rushed about to see what celebrity had come in. Little did they know history was about to be made once again simply through the words Mr. Young would speak.
Speaking on everything from racism to running into white supremacists, poverty, peace, eradication of Polio worldwide and religion, Mr. Young held the attention of the teens like they were at a sold out concert listening to the latest singer or hip hop artist. He told the kids that it doesn’t make sense to get mad but instead to get smart. He noted that “emotions, high emotions get the blood rushing to your extremities and people want to fight when they feel injustice but it’s not helpful.” He encouraged them to ‘think’ in the fight against inequality and racism.
Having 4 children of his own, he stressed that we as a people should learn to not get caught up in other people’s problems but instead look at ourselves first. When asked how he got into activism and considered being an ambassador, he joked with a serious message “I studied to be an ambassador in my neighborhood in kindergarten. With Nazi’s (also referred to also as white supremacist at the time) on one corner, Italians on the next corner and Irish on another corner, I had to learn to get along and be smart.”
A believer in God, on the topic of racism he told the kids “it takes you loving yourself and God knowing what he was doing when he made you. Once you realize you are alright, you can appreciate others are ok too.” He was also asked about his views on the concerns of Ferguson in light of the death of Michael Brown and the riots. He believes the Ferguson issue “is not a racism problem by a poverty or economic problem.” He noted when you have people in a position of not having or getting the opportunity to have the education or jobs they deserve on both sides many things can occur. He also included thoughts about how there are workers of all kinds including police who may not be paid enough, respected enough and who have families and responsibilities not being met and this can lead to a lot of anger for everyone in anywhere. Mr. Young informed us that answers to much of this are “education and jobs to empower people”
One of the best messages I heard out of his entire casual conversation with the group was that “you have two ears and one mouth, listen twice as much as you talk.” Listening to others with the intent to hear instead of the intent respond can save us all a lot of heartbreak. He also noted “No matter how hard things seem, always do the right thing. You have to be willing to fail. Have faith that doing the right thing you will eventually line up with the right people to do right and prevail.” And in today’s world his sentiments are truly needed. As it relates to the world of technology he again joked and showed us he had a smart phone, but gets help from the grandkids sometimes using it. He mentioned “we are living in an era of the most rapid technological change in history. It will cause turmoil and struggle because new technology means new changes constantly as we have to learn new ways to co-exist with one another.”
Before he closed Mr. Young sang songs with the group like “I got a feeling everything is gonna’ be alright.” The message was heard loud and clear from everyone in the room as a message of hope to both the young and old to just keep holding on, believing in yourself, holding onto your faith and loving as well as being kind to others. On a final note he mentioned scriptures he held dear but also the words of another wise man Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Sr. who once said “I don’t know what the future may hold but I know who holds the future so I’ll be alright.” And I do believe….we will all somehow BE ALRIGHT!