Whitney Young Documentary to Debut on PBS

Whitney Young

The name Whitney Young (1921-1971) may ring a bell because it’s the name of the Chicago magnet high school Michelle Obama attended. And if you're older and/or more historically inclined, you‘ll know that he was a figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties and seventies. But what most people don’t know is that Young, the Kentucky-born, former head of the National Urban League, was a prime mover and shaker in terms of getting the government and corporate America to hire Blacks; he was a key adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, and was also instrumental in making the 1963 March on Washington and 1964 Civil Rights Bill happen. He penned a column that was syndicated in over eighty newspapers. He wrote two books, To Be Equal and Beyond Racism. And his pragmatist approach used diplomacy, humor and an even-temperament to get things done.

So why don’t we know more about Young today? It’s partly because his patient, deliberate, no-confrontational approach made him an "Uncle Tom" to many in the Black Power Movement, especially after he famously commented that “you don’t’ get Black Power by chanting it.” It’s easy to see why he was labeled a sell-out by those who were not willing to wait for the revolution to be civilized, let alone televised.

Thankfully, an upcoming Independent Lens/PBS documentary – clocking at just under an hour, and airing nationally on February 18th – is a comprehensive and compelling reassessment of Young’s overlooked contributions. Narrated by actress Alfre Woodard and produced by Emmy-winning news producer Bonnie Boswell (Young’s niece),  The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights features a plethora of rare, archival footage, photos, interviews with family members, reminisces and analysis by a wide range of artists, academics and Civil Rights figures including Vernon Jordan,  Howard Zinn, Ossie Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Amiri Baraka, Dorothy Height and Roy Innis. They paint a picture of a man who was a supreme strategist who honed the rare skill set of speaking the language of the power elite to open doors to people of color.

The documentary traces Young’s evolution; from growing up on his father’s Kentucky boarding school, where the arts and sciences where were secretly taught to Black students who were supposed to only get a vocational education, his education at Kentucky State College, to his days in the Army in WWII, where his mediating skills were honed in putting down racial tensions between White and Black soldiers. Named the executive director of the Urban League in 1961, his engagement with the corporate world paid off:  In one year he got forty thousand Blacks jobs in several Fortune 500 companies. He was also part of the so-called “Big Six;” the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, SNCC’s John Lewis, labor leader A. Philip Randolph and CORE’s John Farmer, who met with Kennedy to push for the March on Washington. 

The film also shows when Young’s halo started to dim with the escalation of the Vietnam War, the election of Richard Nixon and the rise of the Black Power – as articulated by Stokely Carmichael and New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who were impatient for the gradual gains made by Young and his co-horts. Young and King fell out over whether to support or condemn the War. And the mood turned uglier for Young when he was targeted for assassination by two young Black Power advocates. 

Faced with dealing with President Nixon – who, with his Southern Strategy, sought to roll back the gains of the Civil Rights – Young achieved a final victory at convincing the President to continue supporting his Black programs before he died in a drowning accident in Nigeria in 1971.

Through the hindsight of history, Young’s methods have stood the test of time, as evidenced by the numerous Blacks who are CEOs and leaders in the most elite echelons of the government and the corporate world, including the rise of President Barack Obama, who utilizes many of Young’s tactics. If Whitney Young were alive today, he would marvel at what Blacks have accomplished, but he would still press on to further the advancement of the race, through intelligent action and coalition building.

The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights debuts on Monday, February 18th. Find your local PBS listings here.