Boardrooms And Beyond: Remembering Civil Rights 'Power Broker' Whitney Young

Feb 14, 2013
Originally published on February 14, 2013 11:20 am
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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we want to tell you about one of the unsung leaders of the civil rights movement. It wasn't always that way. At one point, he was almost as famous as Martin Luther King, Jr. He had the ear of some of the nation's most powerful leaders, including corporate executives, at a time when most African-Americans were limited to cleaning or cooking in the executive suite.

He consulted with presidents like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and even made an unlikely ally of Richard Nixon.


PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Whitney Young's genius was he knew how to accomplish what other people were merely for.

MARTIN: These days, Whitney Young's contributions to the civil rights movement are little talked about outside civil rights circles, but his niece is trying to change that during this Black History Month. Her name is Bonnie Boswell. She is a journalist and filmmaker and she produced the documentary "The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights." It airs this month on PBS and she's kind enough to join us now in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much for joining us.

BONNIE BOSWELL: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: What gave you the idea for the film? I mean is this the kind of thing that's talked about within the family, the sense that, you know, outside of the Black History Month calendar, that people just these days don't really know what he did? Is that something you all talk about?

BOSWELL: Well, it was a more personal situation for me. I was asked to speak about my uncle after my mom passed away, and this was in 2002 and I was thinking about the world situation, the fact that were again at war overseas and that there was a division between races and racial groups, as well as economic groups here at home. And I was really unhappy and frustrated, and because I was being asked to speak about Uncle Whitney, I began to reflect on his legacy once again and I thought this is what it means to be a great American leader, somebody who can be a bridge builder.

And people say, you know, what was his legacy? And I think that's what it was in many ways.

MARTIN: He was the director of the National Urban League and that is a group that continues to exist. They're still influential in the area of civil rights, but his particular focus was what?

BOSWELL: Well, his focus was on corporate America, opening up the doors to corporate America because that had been an avenue that had really been untapped and so he - because of his upbringing and his personality and his skill set, he could talk to the business community in a way that others couldn't.

He also was able to talk to the presidents and interact with them in a way that others couldn't, so I think that he was able to deal with what we might call the power elite as a peer and really convince them to open up the doors to minorities.

MARTIN: In what way?

BOSWELL: Well, you know, he said that, you know, if we are segregated from one another, even in a corporate situation, that that does everybody a disservice. Not only the African-Americans or women or other minorities that are left out of the picture, but he said it would otherwise be a bland and sterile environment, so that you needed diversity to make it whole for everybody.

So he would convince them, often with humor, but he would say that this was important for everybody's sake.

MARTIN: Well, he wasn't exactly just kind of a Kumbaya kind of guy. He had a really specific sense of why this mattered, and I just want to play a short clip from the film where he talks about his strategy, if you want to call it that. Here it is.


WHITNEY YOUNG: You don't get black power by chanting it. You get it by doing what the other groups have done. The Irish kept quiet. They didn't shout Irish power or Jew power or Italian power. They kept their mouths shut and took over the police department of New York City and the mayorship of Boston.

MARTIN: Now, people are laughing, but he was serious. He was saying change from the inside. What is it that caused him to have that point of view?

BOSWELL: Well, I think that he knew that there were going to many strategies that were going to allow people to sit at the table equally. He said, you know, we need the Jackie Robinsons of industry. Jackie Robinson was an example of somebody who had broken through the color barrier, of course, in sports, but he said, you know, we need the Jackie Robinsons of business.

But he said also we need the Branch Rickeys of industry, somebody who's going to open those doors too. So he saw it as a partnership and he was really letting the people in corporate America understand that they had a vested interest in making sure that the poor and minorities were a part of the fabric of America.

MARTIN: Well, he was - you point out in the film that he was raised on the grounds of a boarding school in Kentucky, where he was born. His father was the - what - the headmaster there...


MARTIN: ...of this all-black boarding school, and you kind of portray it as kind of an ideal world that sheltered him from the harshness of segregation as it was experienced elsewhere.

But then he went into the Army and he showed his skill for negotiating early on, and then he was trained as a social worker. What of those skills or experiences do you think led him to the work that he went on to do?

BOSWELL: I think all of those skills really came from his upbringing and, just to go back into his early years in that school that you were mentioning, I was raised by my grandparents too. So I had first-hand experience myself with that. And, you know, in that community, there was a sense of you took care of others around you. You were never separate yourself. If somebody was sick down the road, you know, you went down the road and brought them some food.

And I know Uncle Whitney and my mom and everybody was raised with that kind of feeling of, you know, responsibility for the community, as well as academic excellence. This was something my grandfather really made sure was a theme for the school campus in general. So he learned how to carry himself, to be dignified, how to look people in the eye and talk to them, how to be outgoing. So this was the stuff that he was raised with as a boy.

I think that being a social worker was a really important skill-set that he developed professionally. And I learned about this really, when I was talking to Dorothy Height, I was interviewing her for the film, and I was asking her about his personality, because I knew that he had great charisma and, you know, had the ability to pull people together. But I thought myself that it was just his personality, in many ways.

And she looked at me with an effort to school me, in essence, and said, well, she said, we - talking about herself and him - she said, we were social workers. And a light went off in my head, because I realized that this was a skill-set that he learned, that to be a social worker means that you are interested in mediation and negotiation. And therefore, it's encouraging, because it means other people can learn this. It's not just a one-off personality, but it's something that can be taught. So that's encouraging.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Bonnie Boswell. She is the niece of civil rights activist Whitney Young. She is the filmmaker behind the new documentary about his life and work. It's called "The Power Broker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights."

But one of the interesting things about the film that I don't - if you're of a certain age, you'll remember this. But I think people who are not of that age might not remember that his point of view was not the only point of view. The Martin Luther King point of view, which is, you know, the church, nonviolence, the idea of inclusion, change from the inside, that was not the only point of view that was developing at that time. And just as an example, you know, here's Stokely Carmichael, for example, who's quoted in the film talking about his perspective on change. Here it is.


STOKELY CARMICHAEL: When we said black power, some honky said, you mean violence. And then he expects us to say uh-uh, boss man. We don't mean violence. Later for the honky. Later for him.

MARTIN: And then he goes on to say that your uncle was the target of some particularly harsh rhetoric from people like Stokely Carmichael and others. In fact, this is something that this - I think that this may surprise some people who didn't live through this era - Adam Clayton Powell, a member of Congress, represented Harlem for many years, ridiculed Whitney Young in a very personal way. Here it is.


REPRESENTATIVE ADAM CLAYTON POWELL: Whitey Young - I mean Whitney Young - is the Wall Street of the civil rights movement.

And Roy Weak Knees - Wilkins, Roy Wilkins - he is the stalking horse for the Whities that would control blacks. They're finished. They've had their day to make notable contributions. But what they're trying to do now black people no longer have anything to do with them.

MARTIN: That had to of been hard to take. Do you have any memories of that period yourself and how he felt about being ridiculed in that way?

BOSWELL: Well, it was painful. And it was a very difficult time, I think, in black America, in the sense that there was a lot of name-calling and labeling and putting people in certain camps. And so I think that, you know, that was one of the things that was difficult. And yet at the same time, I really admired him because he was a teacher, also. He had spent time as the dean of the school social work in Atlanta. And one of the things that he did was he went to a meeting where there were a group of so-called radicals, young people that were in the audience, and they were booing him. They were calling him all the names. But he stood there and kept talking to them. And as he did so and got through his speech, at the end, they gave him a standing ovation.

MARTIN: What do you draw from that?

BOSWELL: Well, that he knew that there were going to be different points of view -extreme points of views, sometimes - but that they - everybody had a stake in the outcome of things moving forward, and that he would be willing to continue to have dialogue with people, that he could create a pathway for people - in this case, young people and older people - to communicate. And one of the things that he did was he would put people on this board, a lot whom were young people, you know, who disagreed with him. And he'd go, OK, well, come in. Let's talk about it. Then why don't you be on my board? So I think, again, this is the spirit of inclusion from his social work training as an educator to keep everybody talking to one another.

MARTIN: I have to ask you this. You were a young person during the black power era. Was there ever a point where you thought he was just completely wrong, just so old school, you know, uncle, you just don't get it? You're too close to white people.

BOSWELL: Yes. I did. I remember I had got an afro one point early on, and I remember him thinking - you know, we had a - he did a discussion about that. And then I continued to move on. I mean, all during my college years, I was very active in political things. And I remember when I started off, I was at Tufts University, and we had a work stoppage because there were no black workers, and the blacks had been out of the unions.

And so I called Uncle Whitney to talk about this, and I thought he would be, you know, advocating for our position, and he was like well, are you OK, baby? You know, it was like, it was much more personal. And I, you know, I understood it, but at the same time I wanted the anger, because I was frustrated and I didn't see or feel that same sense of frustration from him. I'm not, I'm saying he probably had it, but he didn't show it to me.

MARTIN: One of the points that the film makes that I'm not sure people remember is that it got so bad at one point, that he was targeted for assassination. And he is quoted in the film as saying, you know, I always thought that I might be the target of, you know, white racists, but that these were African-Americans who were arrested for targeting him. And I just wanted to ask, you know, how do he feel about that?

BOSWELL: Well, I think he was greatly disappointed and shocked, I mean, at a very core level, because these were people he was fighting for. He was fighting for the rights of African-Americans and other minorities. And so the fact that he was misunderstood, I think, in terms of his style and his approach, really was hurtful to him, but yet he was willing to endure that.

MARTIN: I could not help but notice that you have a lot of interviews with people who are no longer with us, like Ossie Davis, the great actor and civil rights activist, like Dorothy Height, who was also one of the big six leaders of the civil rights movement, the only woman who was regularly - perhaps along with the Coretta Scott King - who was regularly included in kind of the counsels of civil rights leaders. On the one hand, you know, we're so excited to have their voices, on the other hand, so curious. What does that say that you did all these interviews with these people, and then they passed away before the film was completed? Is there something that you want to tell us about the difficulty of getting a film made about Whitney Young?

BOSWELL: Well, this was a difficult film to make. I think making independent films is difficult, anyway. I think making them about a civil rights leader is difficult, particularly one that a lot of people don't remember anymore. So just to capture people's interests was hard.

So I started early. When I decided I wanted to do it, I - even though I didn't have the money, which is what you have to do, first of all, as a filmmaker, is raise a lot of money. And even though I didn't have all the resources, I knew because of their age that many of these people may not live much longer. They were in their 80s, late 80s or 90s.

So I would, you know, rely on the friendship of people I knew who had cameras and say look, we have to grab, you know, Dorothy Height today, you know, even though we don't have everything together. So we did. I mean, literally, we went and interviewed Doherty Height with not a whole lot except a camera, and she was wonderful. She thought it was actually going to be a radio interview, turned out it was television. And so she had her house coat on and she said, well, it's TV. Grab my hat and grab my pearls. So...


BOSWELL: And so she gave us her best. So, but, you know, even though it's been frustrating because it's taken so long and it's been a difficult journey, when I look back on it, I'm actually grateful, because it's so rich. Because we've had this span of time, we were able to capture these iconic figures and really get their point of view, and that's been a wonderful part of this project.

MARTIN: What do you think - how do you think he would like to be remembered?

BOSWELL: I think he always would say: I may not be the most popular, but just say I was effective. I think he wanted to be somebody known for getting something done - as, in fact, Richard Nixon said at his funeral, that he was somebody who got things done.

So I think the idea of somebody who is able to be the architect for the war on poverty and many of the programs that we now enjoy, you know, came out of the thoughts that he had about Medicaid and Job Corps, Head Start, and that kind of thing, that we can see his legacy when we look at affirmative action in corporate America, the diversity effort that now people take for granted. It's far from complete, but at least there's an understanding that this should be a goal. So he pioneered many things.

So I think, you know, the idea that, you know, he was on this journey and opened door would be important to him. But I think he would also be insistent that we don't stop, that the legacy is to continue until we have what his goal was, which was to help America to live up to her ideals.

MARTIN: One of the other things that's noteworthy about this film, again, films about civil rights leaders don't often have - people like the chairman of the American Express Company in the film. And you've got interviews with Ken Chenault, for example. Is that part of his legacy? When you see African-Americans on Wall Street or in, you know, high corporate positions, or Ursula Burns at Xerox Corporation - that's the first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company - do you lay that to Whitney Young's legacy, as well?

BOSWELL: Absolutely. You know, Whitney Young was able to talk to these head of Fortune 500 companies as a peer. And prior to Whitney Young, they had not - most of them - encountered an African-American as a peer. And one of my favorite stories is about him going to Eastern Europe with these heads of companies and, you know, people were really relaxed with him. They saw that he was just like them in so many ways. He was educated. He was affable.

And at the end of this trip, one of them slapped him on the back and said, gee, Whitney, if more Negroes were like you, we wouldn't have any problems. And he said yes, if more white people were like me, we wouldn't have any problem. So, you know, I think that he was able to have them laugh and think, oh, my gosh, what did I just say, you know? So I think he was able in his way to open these doors up. So I think that is a true legacy, and people have built on it. But we have to continue.

MARTIN: Bonnie Boswell is executive producer of "The Power Broker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights." It is airing on PBS this month. You will want to check your local listings for the exact times. And she was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Bonnie Boswell, thank you so much for joining us.

BOSWELL: I appreciate it. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.