Practical, measured, patient and policy-oriented. Whitney Young was an anomaly of what the common pop culture history of the Civil Rights Movement presents. Young believed in a step-by-step push toward integration for Black America even when more radical Black power agendas sprang up in its wake.
Young’s work is displayed in the documentary “The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights,” which airs on Monday, Feb. 18, at 10 p.m. on PBS. The Kentucky native used wit, intellect, a mild temperament and a sense of humor to push corporate America to consider diversity as important to not only the moral fabric of their being, but for profits and the bottom line.
And Young started early. As a soldier in World War II, he mediated between Black and white soldiers who constantly bickered and fought among each other while battling Hitler and Mussolini. Young’s style wove its way into the highest political offices in the country. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. couldn’t get across to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Young’s approach showed him what he needed to get done to persuade Congress to pass civil rights laws. Johnson even adopted Young’s rhetoric and speeches, and Young was one of the main contributors to LBJ’s “Great Society” plans.
The PBS documentary also shows how much jealousy and internal squabbling could be found among civil rights leaders. Whether it was worry over who would take the credit for a success or envy of one’s sudden rise in popularity, somebody had a problem with it. But Young managed to serve as a facilitator and calm the room, reminding them how much certain people would love to see their infighting.
Nonetheless, the fundamental problem of economic justice and police brutality in the Black community produced young revolutionaries who were rightfully impatient and did not want to take a measured approach to combating racism and prejudice, but simply wanted to fight back. Enter the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis and the battle between the middle-class activist establishment of the NAACP and the National Urban League.
“You don’t get Black Power by chanting it,” responded Young in old footage used in “The Powerbroker.” “You get it by doing what the other groups have done. The Irish were quiet. They didn’t shout Irish Power or Italian Power or Jew Power. They kept their mouths shut and took over the police department of New York City and the mayorship of Boston. And that’s the way we will get power and no other way.” While some might have issues with Young’s rhetoric, there’s a huge swath of the Black population that stands by his views today.
But the same rhetoric made him a target with the new revolutionaries who labeled him an “Uncle Tom,” a “House Negro” and an “Oreo” for simply not displaying visible anger and raising his voice. Young was suddenly not Black enough. The rise of the underclass added the criticism of capitalism to the forefront, which made Young’s tactical maneuvers in corporate America seem suspicious. Young understood that a holistic approach (the streets and the boardroom) was necessary for Blacks to overcome. But a failed assassination attempt by radical Blacks against Young rattled him to the core. Young was torn between the militancy he started to feel after the assassination of King, the 180-degree turn of federal government’s operation by way of Richard Nixon and his patient ways of integration.
“The Powerbroker” not only showcases a revolutionary whose rhetoric wasn’t sexy or easily co-opted by hip-hop for its lack of easy sloganeering, but it also presents an unspoken attitude in the Black community: a distrust of other Blacks if they happen to be friends with a lot of white people. Young favored a measured approach to battling prejudice and racism. His approach might be needed today.