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The `Outside Man' of Civil Rights

By Lawrence J. GoodrichLawrence J. Goodrich is on the Monitor staff. / February 28, 1990



IN the United States today, there are black cabinet members, governors, mayors, and national security advisers. So it may be difficult to remember that it was not so long ago when blacks could obtain only the most menial jobs.

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Those were the days when local affiliates of the National Urban League, one of the two oldest organizations for the advancement of black Americans in the United States, counted it as a great victory when a black was hired as a telephone operator or a milkman. The league, founded during World War I, tried to open employment opportunities and provide social services to newly urbanized blacks who were migrating to Northern cities.

Nancy Weiss's readable and concise biography of Whitney M. Young Jr., director of the National Urban League in the 1960s, reminds us of how far the United States has come in ensuring equal rights for all - and of how far Americans still have to go.

While it has an occasional flaw, this book is useful for anyone wishing to gain more understanding of the forces at work in the civil rights movement in the 1940s through the 1960s.

Weiss's biography is concise and easy to read. While it recounts Young's life chronologically, the author takes the occasional detour to give useful background or discuss facets of Young's makeup that had a special impact on the period under discussion.

Whitney Young was the ``outside man'' of the civil rights movement. Raised in a middle-class, professional home (his father was director of Kentucky's first all-black high school), Young had the self-assurance to move freely among white corporate and government leaders. He had an uncanny ability to talk with powerful whites, befriend them, and often enlist their support in breaking down barriers to equal opportunity for blacks.

Ms. Weiss writes that Young decided to make race relations his life's work while serving in the Army during World War II. His field placement with the Minneapolis Urban League while earning his master's degree after the war led to employment there.

During the 1950s, Young worked for the league in Minneapolis and Omaha, Neb., and served as dean of the Atlanta University School of Social Work. He became executive director of the National Urban League in 1961.

Young transformed the league from a social agency into a civil rights organization. He led it to cooperate in the March on Washington in 1963, in which he played an important role. He was often consulted by the president on civil rights legislation and policy. He played a key role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when he helped persuade Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen to break the filibuster that was bottling up the bill. President Johnson awarded Young the Medal of Freedom just before leaving the White House.

Weiss notes, however, that Young's success in working with the white establishment led to severe criticism from militants in the black-power movement, who believed he had sold out. While he disagreed with their confrontational methods and separationist philosophy, Young was always able to keep the lines of communications open with them.

YOUNG knew how to make the militants' rage useful to his own work. He was not above referring to it to convince white businessmen that they had better deal with him or they would have to deal with the radicals later.

When the Nixon administration took office, the nation was already splintered by the Vietnam War. Environmentalism began to compete with civil rights for the energies of white liberals. The President himself seemed hostile to using the federal government as a tool for racial progress. The affirmative-action programs, which Young favored to redress the economic imbalance impeding black progress, came to be seen as ``reverse discrimination'' by the larger community.

Even so, Young was able to sell to Nixon a program under which the league would contract with the government to deliver social services. This set the league on a new course, which would see a huge infusion of federal funds into league activities.

Through an incredible number of personal interviews Weiss conducted with people who knew and worked with Young, including his wife, Margaret, and his daughters, Weiss succeeds in conveying a complete sense of who Young was as a person.

She finds much to admire, but is not entirely laudatory. There is, for example, a frank discussion of Young's reputation as a womanizer.

In March 1971, Young accompanied a mixed-race delegation to a conference on African-American relations in Lagos, Nigeria. During a break in the meetings, he went swimming in rough ocean surf, and apparently drowned. His death was mourned by blacks and whites alike.

Perhaps the best summing up of Whitney Young's life was given at the time of his funeral by a black high school student in Lansing, Mich., quoted by Weiss: ``Whitney Young started out a brother and died a brother. He was one cat that could run with rich white people and still look out for us.''