Ambassador Andrew Young Reflects on the Civil Rights Movement’s Impact on Affordable Housing and Generational Wealth

The Honorable Andrew J. Young, 89,  has held many titles: reverend, scholar (over 80 honorary doctorates), congressman, ambassador, and mayor. Despite these titles, Young is quite comfortable being called “Andy” by all. I prefer “Ambassador.”

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Ambassador Young. Throughout our conversation, he reflected on many topics, including the impact of unfair housing practices and discrimination on Black Americans.  Young played a significant role alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s Chicago Freedom Movement to end slums and improve living conditions. As Mayor of the City of Atlanta, Georgia, affordable housing was at the top of his agenda. We also discussed his views on building generational wealth among Black Americans and faith in the midst of so much hatred in the world.

Discovering Andrew Young?

I first learned of Young as a ten-year-old growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. The year was 1972, and I had just completed a book on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While reading Black Enterprise in early 1975, I learned that Young had been elected to Congress the prior November from Atlanta, Georgia. He served in Congress for two terms before being appointed as the first Black U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. 

(In the interview, Young explains how growing up in a culturally diverse neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana, prepared him to serve at the United Nations. “I think I grew up in a neighborhood that required that I be an ambassador.”)

In January 1978, my father took me to a Black Ministers Breakfast. Young was the guest speaker. 

Riding home, I told my father, an Episcopal priest, “One day, I want to work for Ambassador Young.” He replied, “Well, maybe one day you will. You don’t know what God has planned for you.”

Working with Ambassador Young

My dream came true: I did. After his tenure as U.S. Ambassador at the United Nations, Young became Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, from 1982 to 1990. After serving as Mayor, Young co-founded GoodWorks International, a global advisory firm. Joining the firm in 2005, I worked for him for eight years. 

As a historian and an avid reader, particularly of the Civil Rights Movement, one of the highlights of my job was listening to Young’s behind-the-scenes insights of the thirteen years he spent at the side of King. Young and King first met in April 1957 at a religious emphasis week program hosted by their fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, at Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama. 

By the time they met, King had already gained national and international acclaim for leading a successful city-wide, year-long bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was a pastor. Young was the minister of a church in nearby Marion. 

Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with Young about the Movement, including the challenges to getting public accommodations in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963; King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in August of that year, and the meeting immediately afterward at The White House with President John F. Kennedy; the 1965 march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery; King’s public opposition to the war in Vietnam beginning in early 1967; and the events immediately before and after King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.

Yet, in all of these conversations, I had never spoken to Young about his involvement in King’s efforts to highlight unfair housing practices and conditions in Chicago, Illinois, in 1966. Until now.

The Chicago Freedom Movement

In January 1966, King announced plans to bring his crusade to Chicago, Illinois. Leaders of the Chicago Freedom Movement, a coalition of 44 civil rights organizations, invited King to help bring attention to the racist and discriminatory practices impacting Blacks in the North. 

Reflecting on that time, 55 years after the demonstrations in Chicago, Young graded their efforts: “Our efforts were A-plus.” However, he also acknowledges the many challenges King faced, including the shooting of James Meredith that June in Mississippi. 

“In addition to being overworked and overburdened, we got pulled into the war in Vietnam. And that divided us up all over the country. Yet almost everything we worked on had success. We managed to do everything, but not well.”
One success Young acknowledged after Chicago in 1966 was the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
One week after King’s assassination in Memphis, President Lyndon B. Johnson used this national tragedy to mobilize support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This legislation expanded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the inclusion of Title VIII, known as the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, (and as amended), and family status. 
Generational Wealth
Young also speaks to generational wealth in the 1960s and today.
Housing owned by White slumlords in Chicago in 1966, Young said, was their form of generational wealth: “But it was usually a form of generational wealth for them that they really didn’t need. That’s what created slums – taking out of a community and not reinvesting in a community.”
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