Boardroom activist

The short life and long impact of Whitney M. Young Jr.

Whitney Moore Young Jr. was born in 1921 just west of Louisville, Kentucky on the campus of Lincoln Institute—an African American high school where his father was head principal and president. Young graduated from the school as class valedictorian, before earning an undergraduate degree in social work from Kentucky State University in 1941.

 

During World War II, he was trained as an electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later assigned to a road construction crew of African American soldiers supervised by Southern white officers. Promoted from private to first sergeant in just three weeks, Young faced hostility from both groups. Despite the tension, he would serve as a bridge between the white supervisors and black soldiers angry at their poor treatment. Young credited the situation as sparking his lifelong interest fighting for civil rights.

 

After the war, Young earned a graduate degree in social work at University of Minnesota in 1947 and worked with the St. Paul branch of the National Urban League. After a directorship with the Urban League’s branch in Omaha, Nebraska, he served as dean of Clark Atlanta University’s social work program and became active in the

Top: Young sits at the Johnson White House in 1964. (Yoichi Okamoto/Johnson Library) Above: Young, left, and Martin Luther King Jr. pose with President Kennedy in the Oval Office after the March on Washington in 1963. (Warren Leffler/Library of Congress)

Atlanta National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1960, he was elected president of Georgia NAACP and studied at Harvard University under a Rockefeller Foundation grant.

 

In 1961, the 40-year-old Young was selected as executive director of the National Urban League, taking charge of the organization as civil rights protests began to sweep across the United States. While the Urban League still maintained its founding mission—supporting the African American workforce—Young would transform the organization into a major civil rights group. Young used his position with the League to pressure major corporations to hire more African Americans.

 

A close ally of Martin Luther King Jr., Young helped organize the March on Washington and fostered closer relations within the federal government. Uninterested in entering politics himself, Young advised Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and turned down a potential cabinet post offered by President-elect Richard Nixon. Young led the Urban League until his death at 49 during a 1971 swimming accident in Lagos, Nigeria.

Young and Martin Luther King Jr. meet with President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office at the height of the civil rights movement in 1964. (Yoichi Okamoto/Johnson Library)