Breaking the “thunderous silence”

Whitney Young and the speech that woke up architecture

Legendary civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr. didn’t mince words during his keynote speech at the 1968 AIA National Convention in Portland, Oregon.

 

The preceding decades witnessed monumental progress in America’s troubled road toward racial equality. But as he stood at the podium before the nation’s leading architectural organization, Young gazed upon a sea of almost entirely white, male faces. He saw an AIA that appeared unfazed by the changing world around it and seized the opportunity to start a conversation that carries on to this day.

 

“One need only take a casual look at this audience to see that we have a long way to go in this field,” he told a crowd teeming with some of the most prominent figures in architecture.

 

“You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights . . . You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence.”

These pointed remarks hit home as Young spoke in June of 1968. Just weeks before the AIA convention, presidential hopeful

Whitney Young challenges architects at the 1968 AIA National Convention to reconsider their role in fostering civil rights and social equality. (AIA Archives)

and noted civil rights supporter Robert Kennedy was gunned down in California. And earlier that spring, an assassin’s bullet took the life of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, sparking race riots and violent protests in more than 50 U.S. cities. Even the specter of late President John F. Kennedy loomed at the convention, with Ladybird Johnson herself making an appearance to promote environmental conservation.

 

At the heart of Young’s frustration with architecture was the ongoing growth of stark highrise housing projects towering above the nation’s toughest urban neighborhoods. For him, these “vertical slums” marked a failure not only for city governments, but also for the field of architecture as a whole.

Following Young’s sudden death in 1971 at the age of 49, AIA founded the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award to continue rising to the challenge of creating a more socially-conscious profession.

Read more on the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award >

Read more on the life and career of Whitney Young Jr. >

Building new perspectives

AIA takes advice to heart; begins forging a more equitable architecture profession

Photographed here for a 1963 feature article, Young publicly would challenge AIA and its members to confront social inequality. (John Bottega/Library of Congress)

Young speaks during a press conference at the 1968 AIA National Convention, alongside construction industry leader Gene Brewer and then AIA President Robert Durham, FAIA. (AIA Archives)

During the fiery AIA speech, Whitney Young almost dared the crowd to take immediate action or else risk doing “a disservice to the memory of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bob Kennedy, and to yourselves.”

 

But by the close of his keynote, the civil rights leader took a more subdued tone to offer a blueprint to tackle what architects and city planners had dubbed “the urban crisis” by the late 1960s. To channel new minority voices into mainstream architecture, he promoted a dedicated diversity scholarship program as well as on-the-ground efforts to better connect architects with the communities they shape.

 

In a manner of weeks, AIA officials rose to Young’s challenge, launching a task force on equal opportunity to open the profession to minority groups and develop architecture programs to improve lives in impoverished urban neighborhoods.

This group would partner with VISTA, a precursor to AmeriCorps, to create dozens of community design centers (CDCs) in U.S. cities and also work with the Urban League to improve professional opportunities for minority architects.

 

In 1969 and 1970, thanks to an initial three-year grant from the Ford Foundation, a new AIA diversity scholarship began to find talented young designers once largely cut off from the field. The program also aided the accreditation process for a number of architecture schools serving minority populations.