UNCG Magazine

Andrew Young, MLK, and a ‘freedom high’

Andrew Young with UNCG’s Chancellor Gilliam

His activism began as a young pastor in southern Georgia organizing voter registration drives while he faced death threats. That was nearly 70 years ago. 

At age 90, Andrew Young stepped on the stage with UNCG Chancellor Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. for 1 1/2 hours of discussion of his experiences in activism and politics. Young’s first story was about a savage beating during a civil rights march in St. Augustine, Fla., as he tried to get past 300 Klansmen. By the end of the evening’s discussion, he had completed his term as the first Black U.S. Congressman from the Deep South since Reconstruction, been appointed by President Jimmy Carter to become the U.S.’s first Black Ambassador to the United Nations, served as mayor of Atlanta, and worked with the Atlanta business community and Wall Street investors to take the Atlanta airport to a higher level.

Plenty had changed in the South, and he played a key role in creating that change.

“I never thought we’d get this far in my lifetime,” he said.

The Feb. 8 event in the EUC Auditorium was part of the inaugural International Civil Rights Museum Speaker Series. Introductions were made by Skip Alston, chair of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners and co-founder of the International Civil Rights Museum, and Dr. Omar Ali, dean of UNCG’s Lloyd International Honors College.

Young worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He explained how he first got to know him. Young was asked to spend his evenings reading and writing replies to the voluminous correspondence King was receiving in Atlanta. “Our offices were across from each other” there in Atlanta, he explained.

They had similar educational and seminary backgrounds; Young would respond how he thought King would want. The typist typed the letters up and then King reviewed and signed. Young obviously impressed King. They worked together closely over the coming years.

Young told – as one example – of his reaching out to White contacts in Birmingham as he made initial preparations for the 1963 Birmingham protests. He made inroads through meetings with clergy and ultimately members of the business community. He was politically astute and was comfortable in conversations with a variety of people – even if, as he noted, some of those were individuals King would famously address in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” 

Why did they hold their Birmingham demonstrations in the morning? “The reporters in the 60s had to get on the plane by one o’clock to get to New York to get the demonstration on the news that night,” Young explained. “And Dr. King was very much aware of the fact. He said, ‘We have probably $3 million of communications every day (in national evening news coverage). We have to have demonstrations that are well-defined … so that in the 30 to 45 seconds that they’re going to give us our evening news, people will understand what we’re protesting.’ And so we stayed up late at night, working on all of the finer details of whatever demonstrations we were going to do.”

Andrew Young with UNCG’s Chancellor Gilliam

As the 60s progressed, Young’s work as a strategist and negotiator helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And he afterward continued working with King and other civil rights leaders.

He revealed sides of King few hear about. For example, King could be a “comedian,” inspiring those around him with his humor. “He’d come in and say, ‘You know we are all clinically insane. Nobody in their right mind would think that a sorry and trifling lazy no good bunch like y’all could take on all of the power and military might and economic power of the government of the United States – and yet you all are fool enough that you think you’re going to redeem the soul of America.'” 

“He was more like Richard Pryor, and he’d have us all laughing at the possibility of dying.”

King was inspiring. But the quest for justice could be intoxicating. Young twice during the evening spoke about the “freedom high” – particularly as you’re marching. As he put it, “All of the crazy stuff we did we put under the term ‘freedom high.’ When you get a ‘freedom high,’ you don’t mind dying.” 

At evening’s end, he addressed today’s political climate and what was evident during the president’s State of the Union address the night before. “Everybody is anxious about the future. And we don’t see where we’re going yet,” he said.

He concluded, “But I don’t worry about that. Because I’ve been through this song too many times. And we’re gonna make it alright.”

By Mike Harris, UNCG Magazine editor
Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications

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