This week is the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Justice and Jobs. Let’s look back at some of the heroes of the March.
Today’s Heroes are Whitney Young
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, Whitney M. Young, Sr., was the president of the Lincoln Institute, and twice served as the president of the Kentucky Negro Educational Association. Whitney’s mother, Laura Young, was a teacher who served as the first female postmistress in Kentucky (second in the United States), being appointed to that position by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. Young enrolled in the Lincoln Institute at the age 13, graduating as his class valedictorian, with his sister Margaret becoming salutatorian, in 1937.
Young earned his bachelor of science in social work from Kentucky State University, a historically black institution. At Kentucky State, Young was a forward on the University’s basketball team, and was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, where he served as the vice president. He became the president of his senior class, and graduated in 1941.
During World War II, Young was trained in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 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 as the industrial relations secretary in that branch in 1949.
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. While he was president of the Omaha Urban League, Young taught at the University of Nebraska from 1950 to 1954, and Creighton University from 1951 to 1952.
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, for low rates of African-American employment within the organization. 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.
Young was a close friend of Roy Wilkins, who was the executive director for the NAACP in the 1960s.
Executive Director of National Urban League
In 1961, at age 40, Young became Executive Director of the National Urban League. He was unanimously selected by the National Urban League’s Board of Directors, succeeding Lester Granger on October 1, 1961. 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. Young served as President of the Urban League 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.
Young receives “The Treatment” from President Johnson (1966)
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.
Roy Wilkins (August 30, 1901 – September 8, 1981) was a prominent civil rights activist in the United States from the 1930s to the 1970s. Wilkins’ most notable role was in his leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
After graduation, Wilkins worked as a journalist at The Minnesota Daily and became editor of The Appeal, an African-American newspaper. After he graduated he became the editor of the The Call.
Between 1931 and 1934, Wilkins was assistant NAACP secretary under Walter Francis White. When W. E. B. Du Bois left the organization in 1934, he replaced him as editor of The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. From 1949–50 Wilkins chaired the National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization, which comprised more than 100 local and national groups.
In 1950, Wilkins—along with A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Arnold Aronson, a leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council—founded the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). LCCR has become the premier civil rights coalition, and has coordinated the national legislative campaign on behalf of every major civil rights law since 1957.
Leading the NAACP
In 1955, Roy Wilkins was chosen to be the executive secretary of the NAACP and in 1964 he became its executive director. He had an excellent reputation as an articulate spokesperson for the civil rights movement. One of his first actions was to provide support to civil rights activists in Mississippi who were being subject to a “credit squeeze” by members of the White Citizens Councils.
Wilkins backed a proposal suggested by Dr. T.R.M. Howard of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, who headed the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, a leading civil rights organization in the state. Under the plan, black businesses and voluntary associations shifted their accounts to the black-owned Tri-State Bank of Memphis, Tennessee. By the end of 1955, about $300,000 had been deposited in Tri-State for this purpose. The money enabled Tri-State to extend loans to credit-worthy blacks who were denied loans by white banks. Wilkins participated in the March on Washington (August 1963) which he helped organize, the Selma to Montgomery marches (1965), and the March Against Fear (1966).
He believed in achieving reform by legislative means, testified before many Congressional hearings and conferred with Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Wilkins strongly opposed militancy in the movement for civil rights as represented by the “black power” movement. He was a strong critic of racism in any form regardless of its creed, color or political motivation, and also espoused the principles of nonviolence.
Wilkins was also a member of Omega Psi Phi, a fraternity with a civil rights focus, and one of the intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternities established for African Americans.
Wilkins (right) with Sammy Davis, Jr. (left) and a reporter at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C
In 1964, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP.
In 1967, Wilkins was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon Johnson. During his tenure, the NAACP played a pivotal role in leading the nation into the Civil Rights movement and spearheaded the efforts that led to significant civil rights victories, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1968, Wilkins also served as chair of the U.S. delegation to the International Conference on Human Rights.
In 1976, Wilkins got into a dispute with undisclosed board members at the NAACP national convention in Memphis, Tennessee. He announced that he was postponing his planned retirement by one year because the package offered was insufficient for his needs. Board member Emmitt Douglas of Louisiana demanded that Wilkins disclose the offenders and not impugn the board as a whole. Wilkins merely said that the offenders had “vilified” his reputation and questioned his health and integrity.
In 1977, at the age of 76, Wilkins retired from the NAACP and was succeeded by Benjamin Hooks. He was honored with the title Director Emeritus of the NAACP in the same year. Roy Wilkins died on September 8, 1981 in New York City of heart problems related to a pacemaker implanted on him in 1979 due to his irregular heartbeat.
In 1982, his autobiography Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins was published posthumously.
“ The players in this drama of frustration and indignity are not commas or semicolons in a legislative thesis; they are people, human beings, citizens of the United States of America. ”