For Andrew Young and other exhausted, young civil rights activists who’d spent most of 1963 battling to desegregate public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama, the March on Washington seemed like a chance to take a couple of days off.
Young, then the director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an aide to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., hadn’t planned to attend until King called and insisted, saying: “You won’t want to miss this.”
After the fire hoses and attack dogs, the mass arrests and the mortgaging of the modest homes of middle-class blacks in Birmingham to finance the movement, the event sounded like “a picnic in the park” to Young. He flew to Washington where he was surprised by the vast crowd spilling out of trains and buses and filling the National Mall.
After 50 years and a varied career that included stints as a congressman, United Nations ambassador and Atlanta mayor, Young recalls most vividly one image from that day: a father walking with his young daughter on his shoulders. It was a day, he thought at the time, that was about families.
“It really took our movement from being a Southern black movement to being a national and international human rights movement. Because everywhere in the world, people saw this,” said Young, 81, in an Aug. 22 interview at his home in southwest Atlanta. The images from the march had an impact on the freedom movement in South Africa, he said, and the stirrings that eventually led to the fall of the Soviet Union.
Young will be in Washington again today, when the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, joins former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to speak at the 50th anniversary ceremony commemorating the march. Obama is a confirmation that much progress in race relations has been made in this country since that historic day, he said. Still, he recalled King’s slogan for the SCLC: “To redeem the soul of America from the triple evils of racism, war and poverty.” Much of that work, he said, is unfinished.
What history has largely missed from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Young said, was its emphasis on jobs and the economy -- the references in King’s words to the nation’s default on a “promissory note,” the “bad check” it had written to black citizens, and the minority community’s refusal to believe there were “insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation.”
Although the country has made strides in ending discrimination, Young said, the economic inequalities which increasingly concerned King toward the end of his life have taken on a global complexity. While many religious and cultural issues are at play, Young said the riots in Egypt aren’t unlike those that gripped northern U.S. cities in the 1960s. At bottom, both are about economic opportunity.
“The troubles in the world have led us to the problem he was trying to address, and that is poverty,” Young said. “You’ve got freedom and dignity and equal opportunity, and in the meantime the economy has grown global, and also electronic. To deal with a global economy in the midst of a global recession requires another vision, and nobody seems to have it.”
Before the 1963 demonstration took shape, Young had seen a very different idea for a march.
Exhilarated by their success after a coalition of Alabama businesses agreed to their demands to desegregate, some leaders of the Birmingham campaign argued for a march that would spread the movement’s spirit from city to city across the South.
“They had read Gandhi when they were in jail, and read about the Salt March to the Sea and they wanted to do something like that,” Young said.
In 1930, Mohandas Gandhi, whose nonviolent civil disobedience tactics in the Indian freedom movement were studied by King, led a march of 240 miles from his religious retreat near Ahmadabad to the coast of the Arabian Sea to protest the British salt monopoly. Almost 60,000 people were arrested, including Gandhi. India won independence in 1947.
Both King and Young were wary of the idea of a march all the way to Washington and the dangerous confrontations that would likely come with it, as was the Kennedy administration. Young said the White House welcomed the development when A. Philip Randolph, a black labor leader, invited southern activists to join a coordinated, one-day event.
Randolph and other northern civil rights leaders had promoted the idea of a “jobs and freedom” march since 1941, when an event was canceled after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order banning discrimination in the defense industries. The 1963 march was a coming together of the northern and southern wings of the movement, without the volatile element of a long march to the nation’s capital.
It also became what King called a “coalition of conscience,” with the largest gathering of religious leaders, entertainment figures and other prominent Americans committing themselves to the ideal of racial equality.
Almost alone among the civil rights leaders of that era, Young went on to a successful business as well as political career, with a special emphasis on developing opportunities in Africa. He was elected to Congress in 1972. Fellow Democrat and Georgian, President Carter, appointed him to serve as UN ambassador in 1977.
“People labeled us as anti-business because of the boycotts,” Young said. “The truth is that we saved American capitalism.” In 1981, that perspective suited him for the job of mayor of a city where the connection between blacks and the local business community endured during the movement.
When Atlanta businessman Billy Payne came to Young in 1987 with the idea of making a bid for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, Young embraced it. He worked the contacts he’d made as UN ambassador and toured the globe tirelessly for the effort after finishing his second term as mayor in 1989. The alliance between the former civil rights leader and the future president of Augusta National Golf Club epitomized the long-standing inter-racial relationships in Atlanta.
Young said he’s disappointed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act earlier this year, and the wave of restrictive changes in voting laws in states such as North Carolina.
He said Republicans’ effort to cement control of Congress and state legislatures through redistricting is the root of the the party’s problems with insurgent forces on the right, which sometimes adopted the symbols of the Civil Rights movement, including a march on Washington.
“I was much more comfortable and a much better congressman running in a district that was 37 percent black, where I had to have a white constituency to get elected, than I would have been if I was in a 75 percent black district,” Young said.
As the arc of history leaned toward greater opportunities and a fuller share in American life for blacks, the years since the march were often marked by tragedy and controversy for the family of King, who was assassinated in 1968. In some ways, others, including the family of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, have been heirs to the movement more so than his own relatives.
King’s brother, A.D. King, suffered from alcoholism and depression, and died in 1969. His mother, Alberta Williams King, was shot in front of the family in church in 1974 by a deranged gunman. King’s oldest child, Yolanda, died at the age of 51 in 2007, only a year after her mother, Coretta Scott King.
The surviving children, Dexter, Bernice and Martin Luther King III, have squabbled in court over their parents’ estates and feuded over control of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.
“The problem is that they were all very young,” Young said, when they were thrust into the spotlight while enduring both pain and progress.
“Martin’s granddaughter is three years old, maybe four now. But every time I see her she says, ‘Uncle Andy, when are you going to come by and tell me about my Pop Pop?’”