Above and below: Andrew Young
Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of question-and-answer sessions with distinguished seniors who have made a significant difference in metro Atlanta and their communities through a lifetime of work and service.
If you would like to recommend someone to be included, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Young arguably has an unmatched perspective on this year’s Black Lives Matter/ renewed civil rights movement sparked by the George Floyd killing, as well as the current state of Atlanta.
The New Orleans-raised Young first came to Georgia as a small-town preacher, got involved in the 1960s civil rights movement with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and helped him lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; served multiple terms as both a Georgia congressman and Atlanta’s mayor; and was tapped by then-President Jimmy Carter as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
He later established the Andrew J. Young Foundation, which focuses on education and human rights issues, and is the author of several books.
ASL contributor Mark Woolsey caught up with Young recently at his Atlanta home.
Q: How is the Black Lives Matter/renewed civil rights movement underway now different from what you took part in in the 60s?
A: We (in the 60s) were organized and we came out of a university environment. We consulted with lawyers in advance. We had a legislative strategy for Washington and the states. And it took us three months to get a movement organized that got maybe 55 people to show up. I think we had 63 in Birmingham.
This movement you have, coinciding, people getting laid off and not working because of the virus. Everybody was at home and we all saw the death of George Floyd. With the mass media available now, and the social media, they were able to gather thousands of people. It went worldwide in less time than it took us to organize one small city in the 1960s.
I am 88 and I haven’t seen anything galvanize the planet like this since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And I was 9 years old then.
Q: What about the response of national leadership now as compared to back then?
A: We had brilliant leadership in the Second World War. Roosevelt was a genius. We don’t see leaders who are mobilizing people right now. The thing is that in each of these previous movements in our lifetime we had leaders that grew up and were trained for a time like this. Lyndon Johnson (for example) had a tremendous amount of experience legislating and he understood the importance of using a crisis to make creative changes. … There doesn’t seem to be anybody prepared for these multiple crises now.
Q: How has Atlanta changed since you first came here?
A: The first time I came to Atlanta was for a YMCA conference. I was 14 or 15 and I was at the Butler Avenue YMCA and I saw the Klan march. I rode here on a segregated train.
Things have changed and improved enormously for people of color, but I would say that economic changes have not kept up with changes in race relationships. The problems of race and poverty are intertwined.
When I came here Atlanta was maybe 300,000 people in the metro area. Now it’s six million. We have had simultaneous explosions of populations of both rich and poor. We are both richer and poorer simultaneously. The colleges and the Fortune 500 companies have brought in more rich people than any city in the world, I think, but at the same time people were abandoning the rural areas of the South and flocking to the cities. While we were prepared for the economic boom, we weren’t prepared for the poverty boom.
Q: What role do you feel you had in the changes?
A: Between 1981 [when I became mayor] and 1990, we attracted 1,100 international firms to Atlanta. There was $70 billion in direct investment. Our airport had grown to be the world’s busiest and we didn’t use any government money on the airport, except for the highways to get to it. The secret was we used private sector money from Wall Street for everything we did, starting with the airport.
There was no money in Washington, but there was money in Germany and Japan. So almost immediately I started visiting those places and inviting businesses to come to Georgia.
Q: What would you say if you could talk to your younger self?
A: I’d keep reminding my younger self: keep faith, keep faith in good, keep faith in the eternal values of humanity.
Q: A lot of people have called you a hero. Who are yours?
A: Martin Luther King Junior and Jimmy Carter. Also [Atlanta businessmen] John Portman and Charlie Loudermilk. They were two guys who grew up poor and who got rich on their brains and determination. Also, I basically started out as a preacher, so Gandhi was one of my first spiritual heroes.
Q: How do you feel about the future? Optimistic? Pessimistic?
A: I am faithful. I hope and am sure it’s going to work out all right, but we’ll have some tough times …My grandmother used to sing a song “I’ve got a feeling that everything’s going to be all right.” So, when there are hard times, I sing those old Negro spirituals. They were written in the hardest of times, but they were all very faithful and visionary.
The answer to all questions is spiritual and when we infuse the spiritual into the technological and the modern era, everything’s going to be all right.