He spent most of his career working to end employment discrimination in the United States and turning the National Urban League from a relatively passive civil rights organization into one that aggressively fought for equitable access to socioeconomic opportunity for the historically disenfranchised.
Early Life and career
Young was born in Shelby County, Kentucky, on July 31, 1921 to educated parents. His father was the president of the Lincoln Institute, which was where Whitney was raised and educated. Whitney’s mother, Laura Young, was the first female postmistress in Kentucky, the first African-American postmistress in Kentucky, and the second in the United States.
During World War II, Young was trained in electrical engineering at MIT. He was then assigned to a road construction crew of black soldiers supervised by Southern white officers. After just three weeks, he was promoted from private to first sergeant, creating hostility on both sides. Despite the tension, Young was able to mediate effectively between his white officers and black soldiers angry at their poor treatment. This situation propelled Young into a career in race relations.
After the war, Young joined his wife, Margaret, at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a Masters Degree in social work in 1947 and volunteered for the St. Paul branch of the National Urban League. He was then appointed to a leadership position in that branch.
In 1950, Young became president of the National Urban League’s Omaha, Nebraska chapter. In that position, he helped get black workers into jobs previously reserved for whites. Under his leadership, the chapter tripled its number of paying members.
In his next position as dean of social work at Atlanta University, Young supported alumni in their boycott of the Georgia Conference of Social Welfare. The organization had a poor record of placing African Americans in good jobs. In 1960, Young was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant for a postgraduate year at Harvard University. In the same year, he joined the NAACP and rose to become state president.
Executive Director of National Urban League
In 1961, at age 40, Young became Executive Director of the National Urban League. Within four years he expanded the organization from 38 employees to 1,600 employees; and from an annual budget of $325,000 to one of $6,100,000. He was President of the National Urban League from 1961 until his death in 1971.
The Urban League had traditionally been a cautious and moderate organization with many white members. During Young’s ten-year tenure at the League, he brought the organization to the forefront of the American Civil Rights Movement. He both greatly expanded its mission and kept the support of influential white business and political leaders. As part of the League’s new mission, Young initiated programs like “Street Academy”, an alternative education system to prepare high school dropouts for college, and “New Thrust”, an effort to help local black leaders identify and solve community problems.
Young also pushed for federal aid to cities, proposing a domestic “Marshall Plan“. This plan, which called for $145 billion in spending over 10 years, was partially incorporated into President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Young described his proposals for integration, social programs, and affirmative action in his two books, To Be Equal (1964) and Beyond Racism (1969).
As executive director of the League, Young pushed major corporations to hire more blacks. In doing so, he fostered close relationships with CEOs such as Henry Ford II, leading some blacks to charge that Young had sold out to the white establishment. Young denied these charges and stressed the importance of working within the system to effect change. Still, Young was not afraid to take a bold stand in favor of civil rights. For instance, in 1963, Young was one of the organizers of the March on Washington despite the opposition of many white business leaders.
Despite his reluctance to enter politics himself, Young was an important advisor to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. In 1968, representatives of President-elect Richard Nixon tried to interest Young in a Cabinet post, but Young refused, believing that he could accomplish more through the Urban League.
Young had a particularly close relationship with President Johnson, and in 1969, Johnson honored Young with the highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Young, in turn, was impressed by Johnson’s commitment to civil rights.
Despite their close personal relationship, Young was frustrated by Johnson’s attempts to use him to balance Martin Luther King’s opposition to the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. Young publicly supported Johnson’s war policy, but came to oppose the war after the end of Johnson’s presidency.
In 1968, Herman B. Furguson and Arthur Harris were convicted of conspiring to murder Young as part of what was described as a “black revolutionary plot.” The trial took place in the New York State Supreme Court, with Justice Paul Balsam presiding.
Leadership at the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)
Young served as President of the National Association of Social Workers, (NASW) from 1969-71. He took office at a time of fiscal instability in the association and uncertainty about President Nixon’s continuing commitment to the “War on Poverty” and to ending the war in Vietnam. At the 1969 NASW Delegate Assembly Young stated,
- “First of all, I think the country is in deep trouble. We, as a country have blazed unimagined trails technologically and industrially. We have not yet begun to pioneer in those things that are human and social… I think that social work is uniquely equipped to play a major role in this social and human renaissance of our society, which will, if successful, lead to its survival, and if it is unsuccessful, will lead to its justifiable death.” (NASW News, May 1969).
Mr. Young spent his tenure as President of NASW ensuring that the profession kept pace with the troubling social and human challenges it was facing. NASW News articles document his call to action for social workers to address social welfare through poverty reduction, race reconciliation, and putting an end to the War in Vietnam. In the NASW News, July 1970, he challenged his professional social work organization to take leadership in the national struggle for social welfare:
- “The crisis in health and welfare services in our nation today highlights for NASW what many of us have been stressing for a long time: inherent in the responsibility for leadership in social welfare is responsibility for professional action. They are not disparate aspects of social work but merely two faces of the same coin to be spent on more and better services for the people who need our help. It is out of our belief in this broad definition of responsibility for social welfare that NASW is taking leadership in the efforts to reorder our nation’s priorities and future direction, and is calling on social workers everywhere to do the same.”
The NASW News, May 1971, tribute to Young noted that “As usual Whitney Young was preparing to do battle on the major issues and programs facing the association and the nation. And he was doing it with his usual aplomb-dapper, self-assured, ready to deal with the “power” people to bring about change for the powerless.”
Mr. Young was also well known in the profession of Social Work for being the Dean of the school of Social Work at Clark Atlanta University, which now bears his name. The school has a solid history of Social work, graduating leaders in the profession and having created and founded the “Afro-Centric” prospective of Social Work, a frequently used theory practice in urban areas. In his last column as President for NASW, Young wrote, “whatever we do we should tell the public what we are doing and why. They have to hear from social workers as much as they hear from reporters and government officials.”
On March 11, 1971, Whitney Young drowned while swimming with friends in Lagos, Nigeria, where he was attending a conference sponsored by the African-American Institute. President Nixon sent a plane to Nigeria to collect Young’s body and traveled to Kentucky to deliver the eulogy at Young’s funeral.
Whitney Young’s legacy, as President Nixon stated in his eulogy, was that “he knew how to accomplish what other people were merely for.”  Young’s work was instrumental in breaking down the barriers of segregation and inequality that held back African Americans.
Clark Atlanta University named its School of Social Work, where Whitney Young served as Dean, in Young’s honor. The Whitney M. Young School of Social Work is well-known for founding the “Afro-Centric” prospective of social work.
The Boy Scouts of America created the Whitney M. Young Jr. Service Award to recognize outstanding services by an adult individual or an organization for demonstrated involvement in the development and implementation of Scouting opportunities for youth from rural or low-income urban backgrounds.
Young was honored on a United States Postage stamp as part of its on-going Black Heritage series.
In 1973, The African American MBA Association at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania held its first Annual Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Conference. After 38 years, the Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Conference is the longest student-run conference held at The Wharton School.
“Every man is our brother, and every man’s burden is our own. Where poverty exists, all are poorer. Where hate flourishes, all are corrupted. Where injustice reins, all are unequal.”
“I am not anxious to be the loudest voice or the most popular. But I would like to think that at a crucial moment, I was an effective voice of the voiceless, an effective hope of the hopeless.”
“You can holler, protest, march, picket and demonstrate, but somebody must be able to sit in on the strategy conferences and plot a course. There must be strategies, the researchers, the professionals to carry out the program. That’s our role.”
“Black Power simply means: Look at me, I’m here. I have dignity. I have pride. I have roots. I insist, I demand that I participate in those decisions that affect my life and the lives of my children. It means that I am somebody.”
“Liberalism seems to be related to the distance people are from the problem.”
“I’d rather be prepared for an opportunity that never comes than have an opportunity come and I am not prepared.”
The upcoming documentary, The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights, directed by Christine Khalafian and Taylor Hamilton, chronicles Young’s rise from segregated Kentucky to the national movement for civil rights. The film includes archival footage, photos and interviews compiled by Young’s niece, award-winning journalist Bonnie Boswell Hamilton. Interviews include Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Ossie Davis, Julian Bond, Roy Innis, Vernon Jordan, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dorothy Height.