Led to Service
Throughout his career as a pastor, civil rights strategist with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as a U.S. congressman, U.N. ambassador, mayor of Atlanta, co-chair of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and leader in organizations working for human rights and economic empowerment, the Rev. Andrew Young acknowledged the hand of God at work.
“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous,” said Young in an intimate, unscripted address during Kennesaw State’s 2014 Martin Luther King holiday celebration at the Bobbie Bailey & Family Performance Center on Jan 19. “None of what I have done ─ none of what we accomplished with Dr. King ─ was planned or anticipated.”
Rather, Young said, God’s plan was revealing itself when, as a college track athlete out for a run in North Carolina, he had his first conscious realization of a purpose to life. It was working when he went to Connecticut to work with youth and was given housing in a seminary guest room where he found a Bible and asked to take a class because he did not know much about the Bible. It was at work when he visited a home in Marian, Ala., and met and later married the young woman who had underlined and notated the family’s Bible as she studied ─ the first time he had ever seen that.
It also was no coincidence that Young and Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in comfortable, middle class black communities, neither having a great deal of experience with racism. Yet they married young women – both preachers’ daughters – from the same Alabama town whose families had suffered hurtful experiences with racism, making Jean Childs and Coretta Scott perfect partners to husbands who would live accomplished lives of service.
The same force that moved in his personal life was operating during the Civil Rights Movement as it unfolded in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, Young said.
“Martin didn’t go to Montgomery to start a movement,” Young said. “He went because he didn’t want to get into politics in Atlanta or to become president of Morehouse College and he chose the most conservative, sadity Baptist church in the city.”
As pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1955, King was elected to lead the yearlong Montgomery Improvement Association’s boycott of city buses following Rosa Park’s arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger as laws dictated.
During the 1960s, after Young joined King and other leaders in forming the SCLC, the movement was thrust into the national spotlight as nonviolent protesters faced violent mobs during freedom rides to desegregate interstate buses, sit-ins in Birmingham, the famed “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, the Chicago campaign, and the Memphis boycott by sanitation workers.
“Little did we realize that we were on the path to so much social change,” Young said. “It wasn’t that we were smarter, more courageous or bigger and badder than anyone else. We were willing to go where God had sent us.”
The evolution of Young’s career after King’s death also was divinely guided, he said. He ran for and was elected to Congress in 1972, even though “no one wanted to run for Congress after Dr. King’s death.” After Jimmy Carter was elected president, he appointed Young to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1977.
“I really admired Jimmy Carter because everything he did was in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement,” Young said. “He understood the significance of the movement and he knew it wasn’t just about setting black people free; it set the white South free as well. He sent me to the U.N. because he knew that if people were going to take the U.S seriously about human rights, we had to have credibility [on that front].”
Young said his experiences in Congress and at the U.N. prepared him perfectly for the job as Atlanta’s mayor. He drew on contacts around the world to boost the city’s economy through international investments, even in the midst of a recession and cuts in federal funds to cities. For example, he led negotiations that brought Lufthansa Airlines and some 300 German companies to metro Atlanta.
Young encouraged students to be mindful of God’s purpose for their lives and to make the best use of living in a time when there is more technology and more understanding of human needs. Both, he said, are the basis upon which wealth can be built. “The way we end poverty is by plugging into a global economy.”
“I find the only thing lacking today is vision and courage,” he said. “You can solve any of the problems of your life or of other people by serving others. … The people who do best always start out doing something for others.”
-- Sabbaye McGriff