Dawn Turner Trice
February 13, 2013
When we hear the name Whitney Young, most Chicagoans probably think of the city's Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, rather than the man after whom it was named.
But filmmaker Bonnie Boswell, Young's niece, hopes her new documentary about the civil rights leader and her family will change that in the city and beyond.
I recently watched "The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights," which airs Monday, in Chicago on "Independent Lens" (WTTW-Ch. 11), and spoke with Boswell. One reason you probably don't know much about Young is that he worked behind the scenes during the civil rights movement, quietly connecting people who ordinarily wouldn't have considered themselves compatible because of differences in race, class and politics.
Young had easy access to such iconic figures as Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon Johnson and later President Richard Nixon — and he could have leveraged those relationships in ways that increased his profile.
But Young, who was director of the National Urban League, believed he was most effective in pushing for better jobs and schools for blacks, and anti-poverty programs in one-on-one negotiations with corporate executives rather than leading marches or speaking before mass audiences.
According to "The Powerbroker," while Young's demeanor put some folks within the white power structure at ease, he drew criticism from some blacks, who called him an "Oreo" or an "Uncle Tom" and wanted him to raise his voice, be far less accommodating and take stances that were more in-your-face.
Boswell was in college during the 1960s, and even she wanted her uncle to appear more strident. Back then, she had donned an Afro — which her uncle wasn't fond of — and was leaning more toward the philosophy of black militants such as Stokely Carmichael.
"Those of us who were younger had the luxury of being able to be angry," said Boswell, who attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and later graduated from Harvard. "At the time I didn't appreciate that quality in my uncle, but I understood it later."
She realized it was a quality that was necessary for survival for many black people coming of age in the Jim Crow South.
"Uncle Whitney was born in 1921, and in the 1920s, there were nearly 100 lynchings" in his native Kentucky, Boswell said. "You had to learn how to hold your emotions in check. My grandfather used to say, 'Don't get mad; get smart.'"
When Young was a boy, his father, Whitney Young Sr., was principal of Lincoln Institute, an all-black boarding high school in Kentucky that operated between 1912 and 1966. "The Powerbroker" explains that most white donors thought the school's mission was a vocational one, to prepare the next generation of janitors, mechanics, nannies and maids.
But Young Sr. created a secret curriculum in which students learned math, writing and advanced science in preparation for becoming doctors, lawyers and teachers. When white donors visited the campus, he removed students from the classrooms and put them in the kitchen or the fields so that visitors would be none the wiser.
Whitney Young, the son, would go on to become a social worker. At one point he was dean of Atlanta University's School of Social Work. But it was his work at the National Urban League that would give him access to the country's titans of industry.
As the director of the league, Young had no qualms about going into boardrooms and engaging with corporate executives. He persuaded many to hire blacks — and not for charitable reasons but because it was good business.
In the film, Vernon Jordan, the league's former CEO, put it this way: "Whitney understood power and he understood politics and most of all, he understood people. They said Martin (Luther King, Jr.) was in the streets and Roy (Wilkins) and Thurgood (Marshall) were in the courts and Whitney was in the boardroom.
"One could not have been successful without the other."
Young would call for a domestic Marshall Plan that would redevelop blighted urban communities in the same way the country's 1940s Marshall Plan helped rebuild Europe after World War II. According to the film, part of Young's plan was incorporated into Johnson's Great Society programs.
But by the late 1960s, the expensive Vietnam War had drained resources from the country's anti-poverty programs, and Young's tone had become decidedly more angry.
"He was experiencing moments of frustration, seeing how difficult it was to break through the glass ceiling and the recalcitrance of the status quo," Boswell said.
In December 1970, Young fought for and won $28 million from the Nixon administration to support National Urban League programs for the poor. But Young would never get to see the programs fully implemented because he died the following March. He was 49.
You will find all of this and more in "The Powerbroker."
Boswell said she made the film to show how relevant Young's approach as a mediator is today.
Among the diverse group of people in the film illuminating Young's story are former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.; and the late actor Ossie Davis. Boswell said Davis said something that really resonated with her.
"He said he couldn't tell young people to become another Martin Luther King Jr. or a Malcolm X. They were larger-than-life figures. But he could tell young people to become another Whitney Young," she said.
"He had skill sets that can be taught and have everyday applications. He was a bridge builder, and we need that now more than ever."