Civil rights activist and former politician Ambassador Andrew Young visited Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU) in South Los Angeles on Dec. 4 for a lively discussion with school administration, faculty and staff, as well as a number of King/Drew Magnet High School students.
Moderated by CDU President/CEO David M. Carlisle, the event was this year’s final installment of the University’s Haynes Lecture Series, a monthly dialog on health disparities and the social determinants of health.
The discussion with the 85-year-old civil rights pioneer covered a variety of topics, from lessons he learned from his dentist father that he later applied to his social justice work (“your mind is the most powerful weapon you have”), to the state of the country in 2017 (“angry and balkanized”) to interesting observations from inside the civil rights movement (“Martin Luther King was a ‘gym rat,’ a very quick basketball player and a very good pool player”).
Growing up in the segregated South, Young said, “I was prepared from childhood to deal with racism,” largely because of the influence of his father.
Young told the story of seeing early Nazi sympathizers on a street corner in New Orleans in the 1930s and hearing their anti-American and anti-black talk. But his father told him, “If you get angry with them, you’re in danger of catching their sickness.”
To drive the point home, he took the young boy to a movie theater to see a newsreel of Jesse Owens winning Olympic gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. When Hitler left the event rather than present the African-American sprint champion his first-place medals, Owens didn’t protest or make a scene. He simply won more races and medals. The lesson he learned, Young said, was: “Don’t get mad, get smart. Jesse Owens was smart.”
These lessons enabled him later to “be grounded, spiritual, cool and thoughtful in confrontations” during marches and protests — whether he was facing the police, their dogs, water hoses or the Ku Klux Klan.
As to how the lessons of the civil rights era have evolved over the last six decades, he said, “Freedom is a process. It’s constantly getting better. During the March on Washington, do you know we didn’t have one single woman speaker? We didn’t think of it. Can you imagine that happening today? And we had Dorothy Height with us the entire time. We’re getting more sensitive to our differences.”
When it comes to our fractured political environment today, he offered that “We are genetically programmed to be fearful of anything new. We want things to stay the same, but the world does not stand still.” To combat that, he said, “We need to have more religion in our lives. We need to know that God is in control. We’re part of a spiritual reality, but we’re too materialistic.”
For additional guidance in the contemporary world, Young also directed the audience to the work of Dr. Peter Diamandis, founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation, and principally his book, “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.”
In it, Diamandis lays out an optimistic vision of the future, in which such fields as artificial intelligence, robotics, computing and other rapidly growing technologies will help mankind meet and exceed its basic needs.
At the end of the program, when he was presented with an engraved plaque as a gift from Dr. Carlisle for his many achievements, Young explained that, over the last few years, he had begun giving such awards away, to provide an inspiration to others.
He then called to the front of the auditorium a student from King Drew Magnet High School who had earlier asked Young an insightful question and presented him with the gift. Young then told the young man he hoped he would “grow up to be worthy of it.” The presentation drew a long-standing ovation, as the lecture came to a close.