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Andrew Young Cites History's Lessons As Guide For Future

Texas A&M University-Commerce's Noah Nelson, left, with guest Andrew Young.
Brittany Gryder
Texas A&M University-Commerce's Noah Nelson, left, with guest Andrew Young.

Civil rights leader and statesman Andrew Young spoke on the campus of Texas A&M University-Commerce on Nov. 27. Young is a former U.N. Ambassador, U.S. Congressman, Mayor of Atlanta, and aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

During his visit, Young was asked about the highlights and lowlights of more than half a century in public life. As for a highlight, Young chose to mention a spiritual event that he said helped guide him through what would come later.

“I found my religious self up in Lake Brownwood, Texas,” Young said in reference to a church gathering that he attended as a young man that he described as “the beginning of my religious awakening.”

“I was at a church conference and I was the only black person there,” Young said. “But all the other white people there were dedicated to Jesus. And planning to be missionaries, to help somebody, and nobody had ever challenged me that way. And I think that started me on my religious quest.”

Reviewing the years that followed, Young said it was hard to identify a single highlight.

“Almost every phase of my life has been a high point – going to Congress, going to the United Nations, bringing the Olympics to Atlanta - it’s all been good,” Young said.

Regarding low points, Young chose an obvious tragedy, though he qualified his reflection.

“I would say that the worst moment in my life was the assassination of Martin Luther King 50 years ago,” Young said. “But I can’t even say that. Because the Bible says, talking about Joseph and his brothers, ‘Let us slay the dreamer and we will see then what shall become of his dreams.’ And Martin’s dreams were not killed by a bullet 50 years ago. In fact, he is a more powerful presence in the world today than when he was 39 years old and assassinated. So I don’t know that I have any bad moments, because I live by that Christianity, and I know that there will be crucifixion, but there’s always a resurrection that follows the crucifixion.”

Young expressed gratitude at being able to recall his participation in our nation’s often tumultuous political life with satisfaction.

“I have lived 85 years and have had what most people would call ups and downs,” Young said. “But everything that people thought was a stumbling block in my life, ended up being a stepping stone to something bigger. I had to leave the United Nations because I thought that Palestinians and Israelis ought to speak together and work together. But that just landed me right in the briar patch as mayor of Atlanta.  And I lost the governor’s race, but we won the right to turn the lottery into higher education funds. And then we won the Olympics 30 days later. I’ve just had a good life – I’ve got no complaints. Like the old song said, I decided to follow Jesus and the devil can’t do me no harm.”

Transcript of Andrew Young’s Nov. 27 address at A&M-Commerce:

Thank you. How's everybody? I don't know about you, but I had a good Thanksgiving. Mainly because I didn't eat too much. I didn't have anything to lose because when it comes to football, I'm a “yellow dog.” I’m half Yellowjacket and half Bulldog. It doesn't matter who wins in Georgia, unlike Alabama or Texas, but good food, good friends and good football is a good holiday.

I want to take you back to 1951. I graduated from Howard University in 1951. I had a new preacher at my church. He was invited to come out to Lake Brownwood, Texas to lead Bible study at an interdenominational Christian youth conference. He was from New England and was afraid of the south, so he asked me would I drive with him over here 'cause he didn't know his way around the south. Now I was born in New Orleans, lived in Georgia, had relatives up Dallas, Beaumont; roommate was from San Antonio. I felt comfortable, but driving here we drove to Lake Brownwood, Texas.

When we got there, he and I were the only two black folk there. I said, "Oh, Lord. This way out in the country." I said, "This looks like Ku Klux Klan territory." When we got together, and we sat around, those days, a campfire, just about every white person there had never ever been in a meeting with anybody black. Yet, they stood up, and they testified that they were wanting to go to India, to Latin America to Africa to somewhere as a missionary. They were all very devout Christian young people, but then every last one of 'em said, "But if my parents knew I was here, they'd probably kick me out of the house." That's how far we've come.

For me, it's been a wonderful journey because those young people made me say, "Wait a minute. Damn. Ain't nobody ever told me I should do something for somebody else. My daddy just wanted me to be a dentist and take care of my own family. Even though he was a good churchman and tithed and sang in the choir." But when I told him I was interested in religion, he said, "Well, all the preachers I know are either poor or crooked so if you gonna be a preacher, you're on your own." I was on my own and that's where I started.

That was about 66 years ago. I'm back here in Texas and to me, that visit to Texas 66 years ago really shaped my life. I've never been the same since then because everybody else said they got some meaning in life. Something they wanted to do. Something they felt God called them to do and God hadn't called me. I didn't know what to do, but what I decided was that everything in life had a purpose and if everything had a purpose, the trees, and the cows and everything, there had to be a purpose for me.

A God wouldn't make everything in the world with some purpose and not have a purpose for me so I said, "I don't know what it is and I don't care. I'm gonna do the best I can one day at a time and wherever the spirit leads me, that's where I'll go." Honest to goodness, I've never had an ambition or a desire or a dream.

Only thing I wanted to do was when I was in college I thought I could run. The first track meet I ran in I won the 220 and broke the record at Quantico Marines; first time I'd ever been on a track, ran a 21.4 and that's still a pretty good time in a 220. I thought about the Olympics, but I never got back to the Olympics. But, lo and behold, when I got to be the mayor of Atlanta, soon as I left mayor of Atlanta, we brought the Olympics to us. That is closed.

I've figured out what life is all about. If there's a purpose for me, there's a purpose for you, but to understand your purpose, you have to understand what's going on in the world. Marvin Gaye used to have a song like that. Something. "What's going on?" Was that Marvin Gaye? Yeah. I figured it out finally this way. That we're living in three worlds. You, got no choice. We're in living in a world of business and technology. That's doing pretty good. We're living in a world of politics. That's not doing so good, but the difference is that one or two or three people, they can even be crazy.

Steve Jobs was kinda crazy and Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, but they ended up being friends and enemies all at the same time, but the net result is Microsoft and Apple; two of the biggest corporations in the world that have changed the world. Two really kinda ... Well, Bill's wife stabilized him, Bill Gates. I don't know what happened. I never knew Steve Jobs, but reading his book, you'd have to say he is certifiably insane. At least everybody else thought that. He could be mean and mad, but he was a genius. He's got the biggest company in the world. The fact that you got one of these cell phones and I do means that the world changed because of two weird, talented people.

When I became mayor of Atlanta in 1982, we had four stories, four floors, about city hall, which my city hall's at least as big as this auditorium. We had four stories packed up on top of each other with mainframe computers that did all the city's business. They not there anymore 'cause I can do almost as much with this one little thing in my pocket. I got a whole library. I got a cal- ... I don't even know how to use it, but my grandchildren do.

The world in which we live, technically, is going so fast, it's destabilizing everybody. Now politically, two people, 10 people can take a business idea and make billions of dollars, create millions of jobs and change the way we do everything. Just putting a little politics in it, but just to make you think. That's what ... I liked everything that Bernie Sanders wanted to do and he wanted to make tuition free for college students, at least, an undergraduate. I'm for that, but that's kinda democratic socialism, which is not a bad thing, but you can't have socialism in cell phones. I mean you just can't because when you can pick up the phone and you can sell your money and you can ship your money to banks all over the world and nobody knows where it is. You can do that with a cell phone. You cannot keep the money in place to pay a share of taxes to do what you wanna do so that's one of the big changes that business and technology has produced in the world.

Democrats say that Republicans did it and Republicans say that Democrats did it, but truth of it is cell phones did it. Technology has wiped out the jobs and you part of it. You are destroying more jobs. I mean yesterday they said it was almost more money spent. They expected more money to be spent on Cyber Monday then Black Friday. I wouldn't have understood that a while back, but I think it might have been the last time I was coming out here.

My wife would say, "You didn't bring the dog food. What am I gonna do? You're not gonna be back in time. The dogs gonna run ... I can't handle those big 40 pound bags of food. Get the dog food." My friend, who was with me, said, "Give me your cell phone." He dialed in Amazon and now Amazon delivers a 40 pound bag of dog food to our house every month, whether we need it or not, but that maybe contributed to closing down the PetSmart, where a lot of people used to work. I'm saying we're in a time of change, but it's being changed by technology so you got to understand what's going on in technology.

Politically, in order to make a change, the president can't make a change even with the power of the presidency 'cause he can't find 60 votes for almost anything. Politics is frozen for a while because an overwhelming majority of the people have to wanna do something for you to be able to do it. Most of the problems we have are that our politics is not keeping up with our technology.

Now that has happened before a number of times in life and the most dramatic time was when they invented the printing press in the 1500s. The printing press caused world wars and destabilized the whole planet for 500 years. It was from 1500 to maybe 1944 before the world got back together because every time they printed the Bible in a different language somebody started a new country 'cause they wanted the Bible to be their way, but we're not gonna be that bad because we can understand it now. In between the business world and the economic world and the political world, the Democratic world, there's another world. That's where we are. Just to make it broad and encompassing, let's call it Civil Society.

Now Civil Society is the university. Civil Society is the church. Civil Society is the Red Cross. It's my foundation. It's the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement where Martin Luther King was not a denomination. It wasn't a big church. In fact, it was a few crazy people from all the churches that got together: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, northern, southern, black, white, brown. In the sixties, that Civil Rights Movement generated enough interest and activity through demonstrations so that the political society had to respond.

Now I was with Martin Luther King when he sat down with President Lyndon Johnson. What I didn't know was that President Johnson had been meeting with Secretary of Defense McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, who was his foreign policy advisor and they were trying to get him to send troops to Vietnam. Martin Luther King had just won a Nobel Prize. We were on the way back to Atlanta. We stopped off in Washington to see the president, to ask him to help us with voting rights. The president had just finished three hours talking about Vietnam. Richard Russell, who was a ... He was a deliberate. He wasn't even ashamed to be a racist. He was an outspoken racist conservative. He said, "You need to stay the hell out of Vietnam, Lyndon, if you know what's good for us and you don't need to meet with them King folk. That young boy ... You need to leave both of them alone."

President Johnson saw us. When Dr. King said that we needed to get the right to vote in a democracy. President Johnson said, "I agree with you, but I just don't have the power." I didn't understand it then, but what he meant was, I don't have the votes. I don't have ... In those days, it took 64 votes 'cause you had to end the filibuster 'cause the southern congressmen would ... He just didn't have the votes. He said, "I don't have the power." Like President Trump now doesn't have the power to do almost anything he wants to do 'cause there's not a majority consensus around almost anything anymore.

What we did was Civil Society. It was less than 20 people, with less than ... Well, we didn't have any money. When we left the White House and I asked Dr. King, "Well, what are we gonna do?" He said, "We gonna get the president some power." I said, "Who gonna get the president some power?" He ignored me. I said, "You gonna get president some power?" He said, "We gonna get the president some power." I said, "Don't put me in it. I'm been it. I ain't in it. I ain't messing with the president and trying to get power, when the president can't get power." I was trying to make a joke of it and he was serious. By the time we got out the White House gate, I suddenly realized, he was not talking about technical power, political power, monetary power. He was talking about spiritual power. He really believed and understood how spiritual power could change economic power, which in turn could change political power.

That's what the Civil Rights Movement did. In Birmingham, it was very simple. We weren't angry. We weren't mad. I mean we weren't upset. We just went to ... My job to go meet with the business community and give 'em the bad news. After I did what Dr. King told me to do, and they put it on me because I grew up in New Orleans. In my neighborhood, there was an Irish grocery store on one corner, an Italian bar on another corner. The Nazi Party was on the third corner so before I was five-years-old, I had to deal with racism and Klanism and all the other -isms to get to kindergarten.

My daddy explained that to me. He said, "Look, you don't get mad with these people. Just like you don't run from a dog that's barking. Hold your ... Just stay there and look 'em in the eye and ease on down the road, but stay out of their way. If you notice a dog barking there, walk on the other side of the street. Just be cool, but don't ever get upset and run. Face down whatever trouble you have."

That was a kindergarten lesson in 1936. I remember it because the way he enforced it was he took me to the movie to see Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. Jesse Owens won his first race and instead of giving him his Olympic medal, Hitler walked out of the stadium with all of his stormtroopers because without saying a word, Jesse Owens just put a comma in the whole notion of white supremacy. At least in a hundred yard dash, white folks weren't the fastest in the world anymore. They had been until that time.

You had Jesse Owens being insulted by the host nation, and he could have gotten real upset, but my daddy said, "But, see, Jesse was cool, and he didn't get mad. He got smart. He calmed himself down. He concentrated. He just went on and broke three more world records." He said, "That's the only way you make it in this world. Don't get mad. Get smart. Your mind is the best thing you got."

Now, that's the way you can work in Civil Society. I did not know, and he didn't know. Dr. King didn't have a clue how he was gonna get some power, but when we got home, the next day, two days later, a lady by the name of Amelia Boynton drove over from Selma with two preachers. She told us what Sheriff Jim Clark was doing and how he was mistreating people. I think this was about the 20th of December and Dr. King said to Ms. Boynton, "Well, we usually have the Emancipation Day celebrating the emancipation of slaves on the 1st of January every year." He said, "The 1st of January is on a Sunday, so I got to be at my church Sunday, but can we celebrate the Emancipation Celebration on Monday, the 2nd of January?" She said, "Yeah, but," said, "Sheriff Jim Clark said you cannot have political meetings in churches."

Dr. King said, "Well, what can he do?" She said, "My husband just died a few months ago, and he wouldn't let us have his funeral service in his own church that he'd grown up in. He put horses and policemen on horseback and said 'my husband was too political.' We had to bury him from the street, and he couldn't go in his own church." Here was a 160 pound, 5 foot 7 inch preacher with no money and no political power, nothing, but what Gandhi called "Soul Force." He said, "We can mobilize the spirit and we can change this city and we can go up against Jim Clark with his horses and his fire hoses and his dogs and everything, but if we don't get mad, if we stay cool."

Lo and behold, that was the 2nd of January. Before the end of March, about the 28th of March, President Lyndon Johnson was standing up in the Congress talking to both houses; Congress and the Senate, and calling for new voting rights legislation. He ended his speech with "We shall overcome." Now, we didn't have any money. We didn't have any power, no way to pressure anybody, but we followed the spirit and stayed cool and calm. We walked from Selma to Montgomery, had a lot of troubles along the way, but we kept on going.

In three months, the Civil Society, the small group of committed preachers who Dr. King said, "You've got to be a certifiably insane to do what we doing, but if you're not too much in love with wealth and if you're not afraid of death, nobody can stop you. If you'd love money, they can pay you off and shut you up. If you're scared to die, they can threaten to kill you and scare you off, but if you don't wanna be rich and don't mind going to heaven a little early, nobody can keep you a slave." He said, "You'll sure get into heaven if you get killed as a martyr, doing something right." He said, "Most of you liable to get hit by a truck and ain't no telling what the Lord'll do with you, but if you get killed doing something you believe in and something that is for others, that's probably only way some of you are gonna get to heaven, the way you all live growing up."

He made a joke about the whole business of life and death, but look what we've done. We've had business power and economic power. Political power being shifted by Civil Society 'cause most of the people who came down on the march for Civil Rights in Selma were from universities. They were from the church. They were nuns and priests and rabbis. They were from the labor unions. All that's Civil Society. Really before you figure out how we're doing, think about the fact that we got to figure it out in three different worlds.

My evaluation is that it takes a strong moral, even religious idea to develop a majority that can change anything in a democracy, but to change from mainframe computers to cell phones, you just need some people with some money and some brains. I'd like to recommend a couple of books for you then I'll shut up and see ... If you got some questions, start coming down. If you want to argue with me, I love that.

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.