Lessons in Courage from Andrew Young
A former leader in the Civil Rights Movement and close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young built a career in local and global politics as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the mayor of Atlanta. He is the Ivan Allen Prize for Social Courage recipient for 2018 at Georgia Tech.
On September 13, Georgia Tech will honor Andrew J. Young for his lifelong dedication to public service and human rights. In his roles as a civil rights activist, congressman, ambassador and mayor, Young changed the course of history and shaped our modern-day society.
He will receive the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage, which salutes those who stand up for moral principles at the risk of their careers, livelihoods, and even their lives.
The award is named for Ivan Allen, who served as Atlanta’s mayor during the 1960s. Young has described Allen as one of his heroes.
Young recently sat down with Georgia Tech to talk about his work and life. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Georgia Tech: The Ivan Allen Prize honors those who demonstrate leadership to improve the human condition despite personal risks and challenges. Where does your social courage come from?
Andrew Young: My lessons started in New Orleans in the 1930s. My parents had to train me before kindergarten to deal with diversity and white supremacy. They basically said that white supremacy is a sickness, and you don't get upset with sick people. You never get mad and you don't show fear. You try to understand them and help them to realize that you're no threat.
My father said, “When you get angry, the blood leaves your head and it goes to your fists and your feet and you're bound to do something stupid.” He was 5'4" and told me I’d likely never be more than 5'8”. He said, “You won't ever be able to beat up everybody. You might be able to outrun a few people, but you won't feel good about running. The best thing you can do is face evil and face insecurity and face the problems and use your head to try to figure them out.”
I tell you, I think that was the lesson that pulled me in to Martin Luther King. He understood the complexities of our society and he realized that you don't get them solved by anger, only by reason.
GT: There were struggles in achieving the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. What kept you going during the most challenging times? What do you do when you suffer from pessimism or self-doubt?
AY: You can't afford pessimism or self-doubt. It’s your grounding in the power of God, that this is my Father's world. So, you don't have to be cynical about it or pessimistic. You just have to find which way is God leading you this time.
I think that it was the religious foundation on which we were all raised and the only way we could survive. You love your enemies. You bless those who persecute you. You pray for those who spitefully use you. Those were my first lessons in Sunday school, and they work.
Jimmy Carter came out of the same kind of Judeo-Christian faith. In fact, if you look at the people who have received this honor, until you got to me, almost everybody has a saintly quality about them.
(Past recipients include President Carter, former Senator Sam Nunn and U.S. Rep. John Lewis)
GT: You don't think you have a saintly quality?
AY: I hope not. Nothing is more boring and disgusting than somebody who thinks they're good. I know better.
GT: You've served in many different roles over the years through the civil rights movement, as a member Congress, as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and as Atlanta’s mayor. How did you find your purpose in life? Has it changed over the years for you?
AY: When I left Howard University I realized that I had just barely made it, that I could have just as easily flunked out as graduated. Coming back from Washington on the way to New Orleans, we couldn't stay in hotels, so we stayed at a church conference at Kings Mountain, North Carolina. I went running and ran to the top of this mountain. I was so completely exhausted that I could hardly breathe, and yet, in the moment of complete exhaustion, I had ... there was no voices or nothing, but just all of a sudden, the world made sense. Looking from the top of that mountain, the trees had a purpose, the sunflowers had a purpose, the cornfield had a purpose. Everything had a purpose.
It suddenly hit me that everything on Earth can't have a purpose except me. I had to have a purpose, too. And I didn't know what it was, and I didn't care. But I came down from that mountain saying, “I'll do the best I can one day at a time. Whatever happens will happen. I will find my purpose one day at a time.” And that's the way it's happened.
I didn't want to go to the UN. I wanted to stay in Congress. I didn't want to run for Congress. I wanted Julian Bond or Vernon Jordan to run. I didn't want to be a part of the civil rights movement. I accepted a position in an adult literacy program and they sent me to Atlanta and, lo and behold, the office that they got for me was right across the hall from Martin Luther King.
He used to laugh and joke about the fact that most of us are not going to make it to 40, and he didn't. But because I made it beyond 40, I felt like I had to continue as much of his work as I could.
I was always surrounded by really great people who pushed me to do the best that I could do.
GT: In 2007, you spoke before nearly 7,000 high school students who came to Georgia Tech for an annual United Nations event. You said: “I'm glad to share some of the excitement I feel about the world in which we live. There are horrors, but each of these turns a tragedy into a chance for opportunity.” How do you turn tragedy into a chance for opportunity?
AY: Well, there's a lot of good in the worst of us, and there's a lot of bad in the best of us.
I think I've been fortunate enough to be around Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy and Joe Lowery and John Lewis and Jimmy Carter and George Shultz (former Secretary of the Treasury), who took me in and tried to help me understand the global economy. I've just been fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, and there've been some wonderful people around me who have sort of guided me on my way.
So now, I almost feel like I have to do the same sort of thing as long as I have the energy and the wisdom.
GT: One of the highlights of the Ivan Allen Prize day is the opportunity for Georgia Tech students to hear you speak and other speakers. What lessons do you hope Georgia Tech students will gain from your work? What lessons do you hope to get from them?
AJ: Well, the thing I hope to get from them is the inspiration that they have not given up, that they're smarter than we ever were. There's more opportunity than we ever had.
I wonder what it would have been like in Selma if we'd had cellphones. You know? I mean, that there's no comparison between what we had to deal with and what they have to deal with. So, I expect a whole lot more from them. And yet, I don't feel like we are any better than they are. Their vision doesn't have to be in the street, but it does have to be in their heads and their hearts.
GT: When you think about the future, what do you see? What would you like to see happen when you think about the future?
AY: The future, it seems to me, belongs to the United States and Africa. Africa has unlimited resources, it's geography is unparalleled, it has the largest rainforest, it has the only wildlife left, it has enough mineral rights so that the Chinese can come and take all that they want and they'd still not scratch the surface.
I'm an American, very proud to be an American, but I can never get away from my African heritage. So, it's natural for me to relate to South Africa and to Zimbabwe and to Nigeria, and to appreciate the strengths of the African continent and realize that a partnership with our technology and our values is going to be successful.
I feel very good about the future. I don't want to blame it on the Russians, but they did upset our election. We shouldn't be going back in this confusion right now and we should be moving forward. It may take us another couple of years, but progress is never a straight line forward, it's always up and down and up and down. We had a setback, but I think the next wave will catapult us into a future that even you and I can't understand.
GT: What words of wisdom and advice would you give Georgia Tech students?
AJ: Well, I'd quote John Lewis, “Don't give up, don't give out, keep on keeping on.”
You don't have to know where you're going. You are a part of the entire universe. You're a part of humanity. You're a part of cosmology. The same molecules and atoms that create us, create the stars. It works.