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Andrew Young: Biography & Role as a Civil Rights Leader

Instructor: Christopher Staysniak

Chris has taugh college history and has a doctorate in American history.

In this lesson, you will learn about Andrew Young, who worked in the Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King, Jr., and later served as a congressman, mayor of Atlanta, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Jimmy Carter.

Childhood and Schooling

Andrew Young was born on March 12, 1932 in New Orleans to Daisy Fuller Young, a school teacher, and Andrew Young, Sr., a dentist. His brother, Walter, was born two years later. His was an upper middle-class family that was heavily involved in the Congregational Church. Growing up, Young attended Gilbert Academy, a prestigious college preparatory school for the city's African-American community. After graduating and attending nearby Dillard University, a historically-black liberal arts college, for a year, Young transferred to Howard University in Washington, D.C. As he later recalled, he did not graduate in 1951 magna cum laude but rather, 'Oh, thank you Lordy,' as he just avoided automatic academic expulsion for his lackluster grades.

Early Career

Up until that point, he had been preparing to follow in his father's footsteps as a dentist, but after graduation in the summer of 1951, his life took an important turn. He accompanied a friend on an interdenominational and interracial retreat sponsored by the United Christian Youth Movement, a mainline Protestant organization, at a camp in central Texas. From the conversations and individuals he met there, he began to seriously entertain the idea of entering seminary to become a minister. Shortly after, he began work as a youth organizer with the Connecticut Council of Churches, moved to Hartford, Connecticut, and began classes at Hartford Theological Seminary. In 1955, he graduated with a divinity degree and became an ordained Congregational minister. It was during a summer internship that he met Jean Childs, whom he married in 1954. They would be married for over forty years until her death in 1994 from cancer. Together they had four children. Jean was a constant source of support for Young in all his works, and in her own right was an accomplished advocate for literacy and educational programs.

After graduating, Young became pastor of Bethany Congregational Church in rural Thomasville, Georgia. There he served for two and a half years before the family moved to New York, where he served on the executive staff of the Youth Division of the National Council of the Churches. During this time, Young built a reputation as a strong organizer and administrator with a dedication to civil rights and social justice.

Civil Rights Movement

In 1961, Young and his family returned to the South. They settled in Atlanta, and Young began work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Civil Rights organization founded by Martin Luther King, Jr. and his advisers in 1957 shortly after their victory regarding the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Young's initial role for the SCLC was overseeing its Citizenship School program. The program, originally started by Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins on South Carolina's Johns Island, helped largely poor rural African American communities by instructing them in, as Young described it, 'practical civics.' It taught students how to pass the literacy tests many Southern states imposed as a requirement to vote to restrict black voter turnout. The schools further taught their largely functionally illiterate students about the Constitution, basic citizenship rights, and certain practical skills, such as how to fill out job applications, tax forms, and driver's license forms.

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