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A Conversation With Statesman And Civil Rights Activist Andrew Young

Ambassador Andrew Young will speak at Texas A&M University-Commerce on April 18.
Ambassador Andrew Young will speak at Texas A&M University-Commerce on April 18.

On April 18, Texas A&M University-Commerce will host Andrew Young as part of a day of events that will culminate in the renaming of the Hall of Languages to Talbot Hall, in honor of the late Dr. David A. Talbot.

Young is a former U.N. Ambassador, U.S. Congressman, Mayor of Atlanta, and aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Young will share reflections of his career and his relationship with Dr. King.

Dr. Robert Green, author and former education director of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, will join Young at the assembly.

KETR’s Mark Haslett and Texas A&M University-Commerce Vice President for Media Relations & Community Engagement Noah Nelson spoke with Young by telephone in advance of next week’s visit.

Audio transcription

Mark Haslett: During your decades of public service, you’ve worked with many nationally and internationally famous people. Could you please give an example of someone who is not well known, but who had a profound influence on your career?

Andrew Young: I think that one of the persons that was a great influence in my life from a distance, one of the unsung heroes of the 20th century, and that's Ralph Bunche. Dr. Bunche was instrumental in really shaping the United Nations, and I met him with Martin Luther King. Both of them are Nobel Prize winners. We even have a school named after Dr. Ralph Bunche in Atlanta. But even the students don't know who he was. He went to UCLA on an academic scholarship. And ran track, played basketball and finished magna cum laude and went to Harvard and got his doctorate. And then taught at Howard University for a while. While at Howard University in the late 1930s, he was assigned by the Office of Strategic Services, which was the forerunner of the CIA, to do a survey, an intelligence analysis of the African continent. And, most of what he came up with and understood, kind of shaped the way that the United States responded to Nazi Germany in the whole African theater of the war.

I've been reading a book about Franklin Roosevelt, and there was so little known about the world when Japan and Germany began to attack the United States and launched World War II. And we started from little to nothing as a very kind of weak nation but ended up, I think, with the help of Ralph Bunche in creating the United Nations, and according to the plan of Franklin Roosevelt, and actually organizing the world as we know it today. But very few people remember how this happened. And Ralph Bunche was the son of a barber that moved to California with his grandmother basically just so he could get an education. And he was one of the great Americans of my time. He was not known because he really felt that he could get more accomplished if people didn't realize what he was doing. And in the meeting that I sat in with Martin Luther King, that was one of the things that they shared. Dr. Bunche said to Dr. King that, "You know, you're really right about Vietnam and you're certainly right about your work in civil rights, but I just am sorry that you had to be publicly involved in the war effort because it's very hard to fight two battles in public." And he said that to Dr. King exactly a year before he was assassinated. And so it was my connection with the two of them that kind of guided me through my work at the United Nations in the late 70s to 1980.

Haslett: Ambassador, during that time you were instrumental in shaping the United States’ response to events in Africa. You had a lot to do with changes in Angola and getting Portugal to change its policy towards its presence in Africa as the government in Portugal changed hands in the mid 1970s. And then in the latter part of the decade you were instrumental in the changes in Zimbabwe. Looking at the state of those parts of the continent today - are you satisfied that those nations have come along well or are aspects of their situation frustrating to you?

Young: You know, they're not frustrating. They're understandable to me. They are difficult but I think the whole world is in turmoil, and the connection between the political realities and the economic realities and the new technologies have just ... it's taken us a long time to figure out how all of these are going to go together. And that's one of the things I try to talk about with young people and reminding them that it almost took 500 years for the world to adjust even to the printing press … And right now with the internet and cell phones and the explosion of technology in our time, only the people who are in that area kind of have any understanding of what the social impact is likely to be.

For instance in Kenya now, they traded money for buying on cell phones and there’s electronic money that is now being used in Kenya. And there’s the biogenetic identification of people, almost a billion people in India, where much of the government commerce and relationship to the citizen is dependent on finger prints and iris scans. And we're living in a world that is changing every day and we have not adjusted to that kind of world and I don't know how long it's liable to take. But I think that in what we're seeing in many of those countries is rapid social change produced by technology. But they have not been able to assimilate it politically. I think that's some of what we have in our own country as well. I was listening to the President Trump, talk about the meeting going on right now with the Russians and Secretary Tillerson. Seldom have we been able to kind of turn on our news at dinner and find out what's going on all over the world and get everybody's reaction to it.

Haslett: You’ll be at Texas A&M University-Commerce next week. What are some of the things that you would like to see this generation of students accomplish once they get out of here?

Young: When Dr. King began the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the New Orleans about 1957, the slogan that they adopted was "To redeem the soul of America from the triple evils of racism, war and poverty". And I think we've made significant progress on both race and war. And I think that most of the problems we chase these days are largely economic, though they sometimes come at us in black and white. For instance, the tensions that we have seen between police and students and young people. Quite often the police are white and the students are black. But I think most of that is a direct result of the fact that they are part of a change in economy where the white police are under-paid and under-trained, and where the rising tide of expectations in the black minority is met by unemployment and declining opportunity in big cities. And it's happening almost everywhere. I think of say the Ferguson conflict in St. Louis is more an economic problem then a race problem. And I think that that's the way we're going to have to deal with it.

Now we have a similar situation here in Atlanta where we tore down the housing projects in the center of the city because they were overcrowded and filled with problems and people moved to the suburbs where at first there were no jobs. That's all changed in the last year, because a new Porsche factory moved into that county, and it was one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. Clayton County, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb. And now that the jobs are there, everything is going well. But five years ago after the Olympics when people first moved there, there was the same kind of turbulence. The only difference was we were a little better prepared for it. And we kind of anticipated the difficulty. And we had much more the black control of the economy around our city and largely through our airports, so I'll be discussing those kinds of things with the student body. But I'll be glad to hear their views and I know they will challenge me with some questions that I'll have trouble dealing with. But I look forward to that.

Noah Nelson: Ambassador, you mentioned that you wanted students to ask you questions. What questions would you like to field when you're here?

Young: I always say that there's always one question that's on everybody's mind and that everybody is afraid to ask it because it's embarrassing and they don't want to seem dumb, or they don't want to embarrass me and I always encourage people. I say usually the one who thinks that he's got the dumb question is usually got the question that's going to go to the heart of the problem. So I always say and I made it a point in life, in school, in politics, you know be willing to ask the stupid questions, because usually those are the most profound ones.

Nelson: You also mentioned a little earlier that this was a very dangerous time in the world. What did you mean by that?

Young: That it's a dangerous time in the world because things are happening so fast, and because things are not what people say they are. I liked everything that Bernie Sanders said practically, but it's just not true. You know? You cannot have socialism and cell phones. Socialism requires essentially that the government control the wealth and decide how it should be distributed. Well, when you can transfer billions of dollars over your cell phone, there's actually more money not controlled by governments then the amount of money that's controlled by governments.

And the problems that we see now - right now everybody is upset with President Trump about the Russian connections and also with the Secretary of State who's there right now. But I think of it as a blessing because I think the connection was that Russian money was looking for places outside of Russia to invest. And probably some of it is invested in hotels, or office buildings around the world that are owned by former real estate man Trump. Well frankly, that doesn't bother me, because it's much better to have a global trading system and investing in office buildings and hotels and partnering with each other.

And we forget that this is not the Cold War anymore. We've had Russian cosmonauts and Americans flying in space now for 25 years together. We don't have to revive the old Cold War. We don't know what the new order is. Our news media tends to want to evaluate everything in terms of what they learned as they were coming up in the world. But it's a new day, and there are new questions and new answers and new challenges and what I try to get young people to do is embrace the future and know that they're smart enough and that they have more understanding of the world, more technology and actually more money to deal with any problem that the world faces.

We just don't have … the economic philosophies that enable us to deal with those problems sensibly. That's not just between the United States and the rest of the world. That healthcare is an absolute necessity. I think of even as I saw the young man who was condemned to death for shooting nine people in a church in Charleston. I was really pleased that the relatives of those who lost their lives did not want the death penalty. They realized that this was a sick young man who really needed mental health care. That punishing him and making an example of him does not make the world any better. But again, he was against Obamacare because they called it Obamacare. But that meant he was against the very thing that he needed to live a more positive life. And so, things are not what they seem to be always, but that's what an education is about. An education is about trying to figure out what's real and what's possible and making our dreams and ideals come true.

Nelson: It would seem that that's the problem that a lot of young people are having. What is real? We talk about fake news. We talk about a level of cynicism that runs through this generation. How do you combat that?

Young: You combat that by good thoughts, creative thoughts, analysis in terms of traveling back and looking into the history. Looking into what we went through in the 60s, but also I'll be talking about how Atlanta and Dallas may be dealing with the future a lot better than St. Louis and Cincinnati and the cities in the Midwest where they have not made the adjustments to the fact that the world is now automated.

The assembly featuring a keynote address by Ambassador Andrew Young is scheduled for 11 a.m. on April 18 in Ferguson Hall on the campus of Texas A&M University-Commerce.

Mark Haslett has served at KETR since 2013. Since then, the station's news operation has enjoyed an increase in listener engagement and audience metrics, as well recognition in the Texas AP Broadcasters awards.
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