Andrew Jackson Young Jr. was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 12, 1932, into a prosperous middle-class family. Daisy Fuller, his mother, was a teacher, and Andrew Young, his father, was a dentist. Born in the midst of the Great Depression and Jim Crow segregation, Young was raised to believe that “much will be required of those to whom much has been given.” Young accepted that responsibility as a child, but as he wrote in his autobiography in 1996, his mission as a civil rights activist and politician has not been an easy one.
Andrew Young earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1951. In 1955, he accepted the pastorate of Bethany Congregational Church in Thomasville, Georgia, after receiving a divinity degree from Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut.
While there, he became involved in civil rights and organized voter registration drives. Young joined the National Council of Churches staff in 1957, the same year that US President Dwight D. Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect African American schoolchildren in a school desegregation case. Young left his pastorate in 1961 to join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Martin Luther King Jr.’s church-centered, Atlanta-based civil rights organization.
Young helped organize “citizenship schools” for the SCLC, workshops that taught nonviolent organizing strategies to locals identified by the organization as potential leaders. The schools served rural, mostly uneducated blacks who occasionally resented Young’s leadership. Young’s differences in education and economic background from other black leaders at the time may have led some to regard him as elitist.
Nonetheless, the citizenship schools educated a generation of civic leaders and registered thousands of voters across the South, and they were largely responsible for the civil rights movement’s democratic ethos as well as its eventual success.
Young became a trusted aide to Martin Luther King Jr., eventually rising to the position of SCLC executive director. He was instrumental in organizing voter registration and desegregation campaigns in Albany, Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, as well as Washington, D.C. He was with Mr. King when the civil rights leader was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Many of King’s closest followers struggled to find a voice after his death; Young did not. He was the first African-American elected to Congress from Georgia since Reconstruction when he won the Fifth District seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1972. Young’s election was historic: he and Barbara Jordan, a Democrat who was also elected to the House (from Texas) in 1972, became two of the twentieth century’s first black Southerners in Congress.
Young’s voter registration campaigns throughout the South in the 1950s and 1960s bore fruit, resulting in the election of thousands of African-American candidates to higher office in the coming decades. Young was re-elected to the House of Representatives twice.
Between 1973 and 1977, Young was re-elected to Congress from the Fifth Congressional District twice. After fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter was elected President in 1976, Young was appointed by Carter to serve as the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations. Young was a vocal opponent of white minority rule in South Africa and Rhodesia (currently, Zimbabwe).
His support for liberation movements in both countries prompted him to criticize the United Kingdom and other American allies for their roles in supporting the regimes. Young was forced to resign after meeting with leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1979, which the US government had designated as a terrorist organization at the time.