(FILES)The civil rights leader Martin Luther KIng (C) waves to supporters in this August 28,1963 photo on the Mall in Washington, DC (Washington Monument in background) during the "March on Washington". The conservative Tea Party movement has raised hackles among African-American and civil rights leaders in Washington for organizing a huge weekend rally on August 28, 2010, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's historic "I Have a Dream" speech.Called "Restoring Honor," the rally organized by rightwing talkshow host Glenn Beck is to take place in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the same location where King delivered his most stirring and best remembered address exactly 47 years earlier. Beck has billed the event as a faith-based show of thanks and support for America's military families, honoring US "heroes, our heritage and our future." AFP PHOTO/FILES (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\Was3351961.jpg
Updated: March 12, 2013 6:18AM
What would Whitney Young Jr. say?
I called Bonnie Boswell. She was eager to talk about the history her uncle made more than a half century ago. The award-winning journalist is the executive producer of a new documentary, “The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights.”
Boswell wanted to tout the civil rights hero. February is Black History Month, when we like to remember our heroes.
But the villains were on my mind. The villains behind the cold-blooded, senseless slaying of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, and dozens of other young people slaughtered in the streets of Chicago in recent months. The villains of crime, guns, poverty and dysfunction that have captured and crippled Young’s people.
Today, most Chicagoans know little about him, other than that his name is inscribed on a magnet high school on the near West Side. So promoting the film has been “challenging,” Boswell says. It isn’t easy “helping people to see the relevance of a civil rights leader who’s been dead for 40 years.”
Indeed, Young was one of the most relevant men of his time.
During the turbulent 1960s, the executive director of the National Urban League reached high for the levers of power, connecting his community to Fortune 500 CEOs, governors, senators and presidents.
He cut deals, helped craft legislation and spearheaded social change that uplifted black America. “He was a bridge builder,” Boswell said. “Between rich and poor, black and white, in times much more explosive than our times.”
Young’s quiet, behind-the-scenes efforts were not always embraced by his peers. He butted heads with leaders in the Black Power movement, who sneered that he was a sell-out, an “Oreo” who cozied up to the white establishment.
Yet he is credited with helping broker pivotal civil rights victories, including the 1963 March on Washington and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In 1971, Young died in a drowning accident in Africa at the age of 49. At his funeral, President Richard Nixon said, “He knew how to accomplish what other people were merely for.”
In 2013, the communities he toiled for are still deeply troubled.
What would Young do?
Boswell, who grew up in Hyde Park, says “Uncle Whitney” would not be marching on Chicago’s streets. He would be pushing, urging, suggesting — in the Oval Office, the Department of Education and City Hall. Trained as a social worker, he would seek research, data and pragmatic solutions. Boswell recalled his mantra: “I don’t need to be popular. I want to get something done.”
Like “getting good information” and asking tough questions. Who are the perpetrators? What are the causes? What’s missing in our responses? Where are the successes?
He would bring people together. Police, gang-bangers, educators, the business community. The parents.
This black adviser to presidents past would ask our black president to do more. He would have urged Barack Obama to attend Hadiya’s funeral, Boswell says, and put the might of his office behind prevention and community enrichment efforts.
To Hadiya’s mourners, Young would advise: “Don’t get mad, get smart.”
“The Powerbroker” will air Feb. 18 on PBS.