PBS Special to Feature Whitney Young Jr. “The Power Broker”

Whitney M YoungNATIONWIDE – Whitney Young, Jr., a civil rights champion negotiated with top leaders of industry and government to create greater opportunities for minorities, during the 1960s, as the executive director of the National Urban League.   Young was one of the few African Americans who had the ears of those who controlled the levers of power: Fortune 500 CEOs, governors, senators, and presidents. He used these relationships to gain better access to employment, education, housing, and health care for African Americans, other minorities, and those in need.

His unique position and approach earned him praise, but also scorn from the Black Power movement for being too close to the white establishment. While he is less known today than other leaders of the era because of the behind-the-scenes nature of his work, Young’s legacy and influence are still felt profoundly.

Born in 1921, in rural Kentucky, Young was the son of Whitney and Laura Ray Young. He attended the Lincoln Institute, a segregated school where his father served as principal; his mother was the country’s second African American postmistress. His parents had a powerful influence on him, instilling confidence, dignity, and a strong belief in empowerment through education in him.

Young served in a segregated unit in the Army during World War II, where he frequently mediated tensions between the white and African American service members. The experience inspired Young to work in civil rights when he returned from the war.

After earning a degree from the University of Minnesota, School of Social Work, he began working for various branches of the Urban League, and eventually became the organization’s executive director at the national level in 1961.

As the civil rights movement was gaining steam in the South, Young saw that the resolution-focused approach of social work was key to truly creating a society where minorities would have power and status equal to that of white Americans. This would require that they have access to the same pillars of the American Dream: jobs, healthcare, education and housing.

His manifesto still rings true today. I spoke to Bonnie Boswell, Young’s niece, about her uncle’s lauded legacy:

Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: Congratulations, “Power Broker” is quite a documentary and compels me to ask, what did you set out to do in making this film?

Boswell: My intention was to lift up a role model that I thought would really serve us well in the present. I think (the late) Ossie Davis said is best when I interviewed him for this film. “Whitney Young represents the best of our leaders that connect our past to the present to the future.” If I could summarize what I think his great attribute was and what we need to learn from is that he was a builder of bridges between people of different races and different economic backgrounds and that’s what I think the world is still looking for; we need to lift up people who are doing that work well.

Talk2SV: How long did it take to produce “Power Broker” from concept to completion?

Boswell: Ten years.

Talk2SV: What kept you enthused throughout the 10-year odyssey of sorts?

Boswell: I was committed to the mission much like swimming, once you start out, if you are half way in the pool you’ve got to keep going. It was arduous in many ways. It was very trying.  We had the ups and downs of trying to raise money during the great economic recession that we’ve had especially about a subject that many people never heard of or didn’t really have a good sense of who he was because he died over 40 years ago.

Getting interest in the subject matter itself was challenging but I really believed in the mission. I believe that we need to look at people who were behind the scenes (like Young), who get so much work done. I think this is who carries the water for most of us anyway. There’s so much good work happening by people whose life and what they do is not celebrated enough. I think we need to lift those kinds of role models up.

Talk2SV: It appears from the angle you document the legacy of Whitney Young that his approach and strategy does not call for public acclaim as he got more done behind the scenes. Do you ascribe to that methodology as a better paradigm?

Boswell: No, I think we need all kinds of strategies and that is one of the central messages of this film and of that movement: no one person or approach works, it was a constellation of approaches that are and were valuable. You need people who can get out and articulate what the issues are in a broad context; others who can energize people with common bonds and get them to speak up on behalf of their own lives and; at the same time, you need people who can have one-on-one conversations away from the spotlight. Those who can help move the discussion when people have particular positions — those positions change based on heart-to-heart dialogue and I think you can’t do that in the bright light of the public.

Talk2SV: Leaders within the body politic are often moving targets depending on the state of the union. In your opinion, what is the most pressing issue we face presently and do you see political efficacy and advocacy being broader now or do we need to get back to a more focused approach?

Boswell: Well, that’s an interesting question. I think we probably need to be less on the defensive in terms of advocacy for basic human rights and more offensive. And what I mean by that is I think everybody in this country basically wants the same kinds of things. They want a safe place to raise their family; they want to be able to have enough food to live in a healthy way. They want to have basic medical care that will help them preserve their life. I think we want safe neighborhoods.

I think we all want the same things but we have to collectively stand up for those things. What happens is people who like to manipulate power have always done the ‘divide and conquer’ process and have been for years. This is not new. I think that it’s not up to us to look for others to do the work of advocating for the democracy we want rather we have to.  Collectively, we have to stand up ourselves to say what we need.

Talk2SV: I couldn’t agree more. It is 50 years since 1963, a pivotal year within the Civil Rights movement, as we know it. What are your thoughts about guns that were once used on us and against us are now pointed towards us from our own, from people who look like us?

Boswell: I think it’s important that we look deeply —a goal Whitney would have done— to analyze what the trends are, who the populations are and try to solve the problem based on that approach. I think we have to figure out how to help people have a sense of going from point A to point B in their own life. If the schools are not performing or not serving well, how can we expect people to have a concept of getting a job? As a country, a little over 2% of every federal dollar goes into education, end of subject. We have to look at where our priorities are. That tells us what we really care about. And if we don’t look at that with full measure about where we are going to put our money then we’re just kidding ourselves.

Talk2SV: I fully appreciate the way the documentary illuminates the historical background of Whitney Young. Coming from a strong family focused on education; a family who understood economics and what it meant, not only to be educated but also how to secure and maintain a level of economy for yourselves.

Boswell: Exactly. That was part of Uncle Whitney’s vision in terms of his contribution to the Civil Rights movement because it’s one thing to change the laws that allow you to be able to live in a community but it’s another thing to be able to have the resources, the money to be able to afford to live in any community that you want. So, I think as a social worker, he particularly brought into the conversation the question of education, jobs, health care, and things like that, which helped him to influence the Great Society. Such programs that now all Americans can take advantage of. Health, Head Start and Job corps: we have to be pragmatic as well as idealistic.

Talk2SV: What was your relationship to your Uncle?

Boswell: I always thought he was a very big guy so I remember feeling very safe with him. My first memories of him as a child were going to stay with him and his family when I was six years old. I got on a plane by myself which was a very big deal for me at the time and being comforted knowing that Uncle Whitney would be there at the end of the trip saved me from this scary thing I was about to do. He was always very warm and very generous with me.

Now, we had our disagreements because I was in college during the time that the Black Power movement was very strong. I was a very strong advocate for many of those positions so we had some disagreements about approaches on matters. He was nervous when I started wearing an afro very early in the movement; I was one of the first kids on the block [to wear one] and he wasn’t sure where that was going to go with me. I was involved in student protests and things of that sort so he was a concerned uncle.

Talk2SV: Now that you’ve done this film that is out in the larger population, how does it allow you to move forward?

Boswell: I’m thrilled by the success of the film in terms of energizing people. Everybody who has actually sees the film (in advance showings) pretty much say the same thing which is, ‘I learned so much. I learned things I didn’t know, I thought I knew about the movement and I didn’t.’ There’s this sense of discovery, sort of the back story of much of the movement, inner side and the nuances of how things get done. I’m so happy that people get the point and that’s the greatest satisfaction I could have in having produced this film. I just want to continue to spread its message and have dialogue with people, young people in particular, about how to apply this in their own lives.

“Power Broker” airs Monday, Feb. 18 on PBS.

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By Sandra Varner
OBSERVER Correspondent