We should all know Andrew Young.

Young was a legendary civil rights activist, a congressman, a two-time mayor of Atlanta, and a United Nations ambassador. 

But before he was a national figure working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the height of the civil rights movement, he was a native son of New Orleans, attending Valena C. Jones Elementary, Gilbert Academy and Dillard University before transferring to Howard University.  

Andrew Young

He still traces his life through the landmarks of New Orleans. 

“You know where the Veterans hospital is on Canal Street?” Young asked during an interview. “I lived on Cleveland Avenue. If you go to Galvez and Cleveland and walk halfway down that street, there’s a sign for the hospital; that sign goes right into where my house was. 

“That was where I was born. That was a great neighborhood. It was a neighborhood that taught me how to be peaceful with people who were different,” Young said.

The neighborhood featured an Irish grocery store on one corner and an Italian bar on another, he said. Growing up, Young noted, he learned “to talk to anybody about anything.” This so-called “diplomatic training” came in handy when Young had to negotiate with Southern white business leaders before civil rights demonstrations and later in his role as a UN ambassador.

“I grew up in a good neighborhood that taught me to be an international citizen,” he said. “I had to get along with people who were different from the time I was 3 or 4 years old.

 “To get to the grocery store, I had to be friendly with everybody — no matter what color they were, no matter what nation they came from. I learned to get along with people regardless, and I think I’m better off for it.”

He recalled that a group of Nazi sympathizers lived “50 yards from where I was born.” 

“They used to fly swastikas and heil Hitler,” Young remembered. “My daddy said, ‘They’re white supremacists. And you know that God made one blood all the nations of the world. But they don’t believe that. But that’s their problem with God. You don’t need to argue with them about that.’”

Young’s father, a dentist in New Orleans, took him to a segregated movie theater in the city to see a show about how Olympian Jesse Owens won the 100-meter dash at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The success of Owens and other Black athletes at the games was seen as a powerful refutation of Adolf Hitler’s Aryan white supremacy ideology. 

“My father said, ‘Jesse didn’t come there to impress Hitler. Jesse came there to help his country win the Olympics. Jesse had three more races to run. And so,’ he said, ‘he stayed calm and that’s what you need to do. Keep your eyes on your business and don’t worry about what other people think or say or do.’ It’s been a motto for me: Don’t get mad, get smart, use your mind to think.”

Young wrote a children’s book about his father’s lesson, “Just Like Jesse Owens,” which was co-written with his daughter, Paula Shelton and published in August 2022.

Young said though his father wanted him to be a dentist like him, he wanted something different for his life. “I didn’t want to be anything that kept me in one room.” 

Young’s career has certainly gone beyond one room. 

In his book “The Many Lives of Andrew Young,” which was released in March 2022, journalist Ernie Suggs described Young as “one of the architects behind this great democracy” that the civil rights activists of the 1960s were working to build.

Young’s crucial role in working with King during the civil rights movement is often underestimated, Suggs wrote in a Facebook message. 

“Between the time he officially joined the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) in the early 1960s until King’s death in 1968, Young was one of the movement’s key strategic and intellectual leaders who was able to effectively communicate with dirt farmers in Mississippi as well as with the president of the United States,” Suggs said. “No major decision was made without his input.”

Suggs said Young initially joined King to sort mail, “but his intelligence and ability to speak his mind and even challenge King quickly allowed the movement leaders to recognize his value.”

Suggs was with Young at Dillard University last year, promoting “Many Lives.” He said King depended on Young greatly and loved him.

As the nation officially recognizes King’s life and work, Young said this holiday, as well as the King Memorial in Washington, D.C., is not for the civil rights leader, but for us.

“They’re for us to realize that he lived a good life. He lived it without anger and without hatred,” Young said. “He loved everybody so much so that he laid down his life for the sanitation workers to try to let them know that they were important and they were just as important as the college students who were marching in those days or anybody else.

“He wanted to point to the fact that these are people. He used to say, ‘the least of these, God’s children.’ They were the people nobody respected and he respected them. It was his way of saying that everybody’s important.” 

These days, Young is as busy as ever. The 90-year-old still works full-time, his assistant said, and he travels a lot too. His schedule is packed with talks and a few television appearances. 

But Young said his start in New Orleans helped create the life he has today.

“I really got a good education,” Young said of growing up in New Orleans. “I learned to get along with all kinds of people and it has helped me all through life.”

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Lottie L. Joiner

Lottie L. Joiner, assistant managing editor at Verite, is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience covering issues that impact underserved and marginalized communities. She...