The way Andrew Young sees it, the problems of the world cannot be solved through political parties, color, denominations or faith.
The only proven answer, according to this seasoned civil rights activist who was close friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is nonviolent communication and cooperation.
A day after taking part in the Super Bowl LIII coin toss, Young shared his story of nonviolence, hard work and perseverance with a sold-out crowd of more than 1,000 people in Oklahoma Christian University’s Garvey Center auditorium. Since the dawn of the civil rights movement in the mid 1950s, Young has fought for racial equality and social justice as a minister, congressman, U.S. ambassador, mayor and public speaker.
His visit to campus is part of the History Speaks lecture series, which has brought influential civil rights leaders to Oklahoma Christian every February since 2014.
Born to college-educated parents in New Orleans on March 13, 1932, Young trained to be a dentist during his teenage years but later changed his mind, attending the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, CN, instead. After graduating and becoming ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ in 1955, he went on to preach at congregations across Georgia and Alabama.
Young’s activism began in 1956, when he organized voter registration rallies through his congregation in Birmingham, AL. Trouble arose when members of a local Ku Klux Klan chapter learned of Young’s efforts and began threatening him and his parishioners.
“I said to my wife, look, if the Klan comes in, I’m going to talk to them,” Young said during a press conference Monday afternoon. “But I want you to sit in the window with a rifle. Then I can talk with some restraint. Because if they’re worried something is going to happen to them, they won’t do anything to me.”
His wife at the time, Jean Chiles Young, refused, stating she could never point a weapon at another human. By instead communicating with city officials and rallying public support from local business leaders, Young said he was able to work out a deal, not only allowing voter registration rallies to continue, but also to end segregation in public areas.
“This proved to me that you can reason with people about almost anything,” Young said.
Young would go on to work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1960, becoming their director in 1964. It was in this role Young would work alongside and become close friends with Dr. King.
“He [Dr. King] was just one ordinary, regular guy who allowed himself to be turned over to God,” Young said. “He never had any money, but the one thing he was born with was faith in God, and he was born with a right to an education. Before he was born, everyone in the family knew he was going to get a Ph.D.”
In April 1968, Young traveled alongside Dr. King to Memphis, TN, to support local sanitation workers on strike. As Dr. King stood on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, he was shot and killed by white supremacist James Earl Ray.
“I think he chose to go to Memphis because he knew his time was coming, and he really didn’t want to die in New York, in Washington or even in Atlanta,” Young said. “I think this was his third time to visit the sanitation workers, and he wanted to go back to be with them, to see them through their struggles.”
During their near-decade together fighting for racial equality across the nation, Young said Dr. King showed off a humorous side unbeknownst to most.
“He had a great sense of humor,” Young said. “He liked to clown and tease. The private Martin Luther King was more like Richard Pryor than the public Martin Luther King.”
Following the conclusion of the civil rights movement in the 1970s, Young served as a U.S. Representative from Georgia from 1973 to 1977 and then as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 1977 to 1979. He was then elected mayor of Atlanta in 1982, a role he would serve in for eight years.
According to Young, his time in Congress was difficult at times because “he had to work with 500 other people.” But, due in large part to his strong communication skills and peacemaking ability, he said he was able to thrive working as U.S. ambassador and mayor.
While sharing stories from the past, Young also touched on current news and issues facing America. At the beginning of his address, Young questioned those calling for the resignation of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, saying, “It bothers me because all men sin and fall short of the glory of God.”
In his pre-speech press conference with the media, Young voiced opposition to the motives and methodology behind the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically their decision to block freeway traffic in Sacramento last March.
“I told them, ‘You have to think, you cannot get emotional in any kind of fight,’” Young said. “I had to learn that. The Nazi party was on the corner of my house when I was four years old. My daddy taught me then: you do not ever lose your temper; you do not ever get upset with sick people.”
Capping off the evening of stories, reflections and wisdom, Young offered simple advice to all in attendance—always practice forgiveness.
“The one unforgivable sin is your inability to forgive,” Young said. “If you can’t extend forgiveness to your enemies, you can’t receive the forgiveness from God in your life.”