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He was one of the great civil rights leaders of his time—so influential that he graced the cover of an issue of Time magazine. He was on easy social terms with some of America’s leading corporate titans and a president of the United States.
He was the last person to speak at the landmark 1963 March on Washington before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He was responsible for the employment of tens of thousands of Black Americans during the 1960s – and, it can be said, for the employment of millions in the decades afterward. More than any other individual, he opened the upper reaches of corporate America to Black men and women. His ideas for improving the lot of Black Americans – expanding their educational and employment opportunity, and fortifying their physical and social well-being – influenced President Lyndon B. Johnson’s crafting of his Great Society legislation.
He helped steer Black America through the social and political cauldron of the late 1960s and negotiated, in effect, a peace treaty with the Nixon administration for Black America that produced more federal funding for programs intended to bolster Black Americans than ever before.
And, his tragic death cut short a life much too soon.
His name was Whitney M. Young, Jr. He was the powerbroker of the Civil Rights Movement. He was
That word is the foundation of the title of a documentary on Young’s life and work being shown this week on Public Broadcasting Service stations. “The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights” captures the importance of a man who was at the center of the enormous effort in the 1960s to transform the United States from a de facto apartheid state to a true democracy, but who, since his death in 1971 while swimming at an ocean beach in Nigeria, seemed to rapidly disappear from the public consciousness. The documentary, produced by Young’s niece, Bonnie Boswell, is the first substantial treatment of him since a biography by scholar Dennis Dickerson (who is included in the documentary) 15 years ago.
The superb effort is both long overdue and right on time. For, even as it strips away more of the gauze that still seems to obscure how difficult the achievement of basic civil rights for Blacks in the 1960s was and how frighteningly turbulent the late 1960s were, “The Powerbroker” implicitly establishes the direct link between the work Young did and sought to do then and the complex place in American society Black Americans occupy now.
For one thing, Young’s advocacy in 1963 and 1964 – before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – of a comprehensive $145-billion social and economic plan for Black Americans, which he called a “domestic Marshall Plan,” underscores that he and the rest of the civil rights leadership fully understood the importance of putting African Americans on a solid economic foundation for their, and the nation’s, benefit.
Listen to Young’s explanation of the need for it, and then recall President Obama’s discussion of some of America’s social needs in his State of the Union speech.
For another, look here at how easily and confidently Young mixes with some of the leading figures of American business. One can almost feel his own ease and comfort and supreme confidence in his ability to put these men at ease with him.
These glimpses of Young at work with corporate titans may seem business-as-usual today, when Black men and women, and other people of color, occupy the top offices of Fortune 500 companies, law firms, and powerful commercial and investment banks. But, until Whitney Young, White Americans had never seen a Black person like him: a Black person who was a civil rights leader but who moved with ease among them and spoke their business-oriented, bottom-line-results lingo as if he were one of them.
That’s because Whitney Young was one of them — just as he was a Black and a civil rights leader. Both as a matter of his civil rights work, and as a matter of his personal operating style, Young expanded the vision, the model, of how a Black American could navigate one’s way into the mainstream of American society. Look at Young and think of such leading Black American business figures as Kenneth I. Chenault, head of American Express, or Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., the investment banker and super-lawyer, or Richard D. Parsons, former chairman of Time Warner and Citigroup. Think, too, of the operating style of such Black politicians as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and, yes, President Obama.
This was the point one businessman interviewed in the documentary meant when he said that Young forged a “road map” for Blacks into corporate America – where immense economic and political power resides – where there had been none before.
He’s absolutely correct. But I would broaden the point a bit to say that Whitney Young, the powerbroker, did so as part of expanding the road map he was helping Black Americans build for their entire future as Americans.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist and author of His most recent book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.