Ambassador Andrew Young  (1932-  ), is best known for his years of service on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s where he was a co-worker and close companion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Young served as Executive Director and Vice-President of SCLC. Young was also former mayor of Atlanta, Georgia; representative to US Congress from Georgia, and ambassador to the United Nations during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Andrew Young is one of the “long-distance runners” in the continuing struggle to expand and refine democracy in America, to create a more perfect union for its people. At the midpoint of the twentieth century, the movement “to redeem the soul of America” experienced an extraordinary new beginning, grounded in the southern states of our nation, led by the children of Africa, and inadequately labeled “the Civil Rights Movement”.

From the beginning of this struggle for democratic redemption, Andrew Jackson Young, deep southerner himself, was fully engaged. This native of New Orleans began his servant-leadership journey as a very young man. While still in their early twenties, Andy and his wife, Jean, were serving a parish made up of two small Congregational churches in south Georgia when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in 1955. As he explains in this interview Young had practically stumbled into Christian ministry, but from the outset he clearly defined that ministry as a base of service to the world around him, and he was soon involved in a local voter registration campaign that drew the angry attention of the Ku Klux Klan and the admiration of new leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. It was this commitment to service and adventure that soon led Young to accept an invitation to serve as an executive with the ecumenical, social justice-oriented National Council of Churches, working especially with young people around the country from the NCC base in New York City. He was the second black executive in a group of six hundred at NCC headquarters.

When the Youngs left New York and returned south in the summer of 1961 our paths crossed for the first time in the city of Atlanta. Andy and Jean had always intended to return to the south, and an invitation for Andy to work with Martin King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) provided the point of reentry. We, ourselves, had just come to Atlanta from Chicago to serve the southern freedom movement as representatives of the service committee of the Mennonite Churches in America and co-directors of Mennonite House, an interracial residential movement center in the exciting city.

It turned out that one of Andy’s most experienced and gifted co-workers in the citizenship education program of SCLC was a mature, courageous and creative South Carolinian, Septima Poinsett Clark. Clark was a public school teacher who had been fired from her Charleston position because she refused to give up membership in the NAACP. Eventually that job loss released her to work at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee — a progressive training center for local pro-democracy workers. At Highlander, Clark developed a week-long workshop process for preparing the rising African-American movement forces not only to vote, but to claim and teach leadership in their communities and in the nation. This was the program that Clark brought to SCLC in 1961, and when she arrived, Andy arranged for Septima to live with us at Mennonite House.

It was partly through the SCLC and Septima Clark connections, and partly through our friendship with Martin and Coretta King (Mennonite House was just around the corner from their residence) that we developed a relationship with Andy and Jean. At the same time, we were working with Andy as mediators and facilitators in a variety of movement communities like Albany, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama. As we joined and observed Andy at work, we were deeply impressed by the unflappable way in which he faced situations of danger and unpredictability, with his marvelous combination of integrity, quiet courage and great sense of humor.

A typical assignment that we shared in places like Albany and Birmingham — where the movement was creating a powerful and efficacious tension in the status quo — was to locate and engage the local white leaders who wanted to begin a dialogue with the protest leaders. Andy had deeply imbibed the teachings of nonviolent resistance and faced segregationists and “moderates” with the same equanimity and refusal to lose his cool, always remembering that the goals of the movement were more important than any desire he might have to vent and display the justifiable anger that welled up regularly in us all. He was neither intimidated nor overly impressed by the men (they were always men) who sat on the other side of the negotiating table. And his capacity to easily match their occasional urbanity never caused him to lose his beautiful touch with the grassroots black folk who were at the center of the movement’s life and concern. (So we were not surprised when Young later ran for Congress and won the seat representing Georgia’s Fifth Congressional district where his constituency was racially mixed but predominately white.)

By the mid-1960s, Andy had become Martin King’s closest confidant in SCLC, especially in the post-Selma March days when King was moving to develop a stance that might be called “compassionate religious radicalism”, focussed on the needs of the poor of every color. When King was assassinated on the Memphis balcony in 1968, Young was nearby, a brother in struggle and faith, a potential second target for the shooter. For, like King, he too had called the nation and the world to a more righteous relationship to the marginalized, all the while challenging himself toward a more prophetic understanding of his own ministry.

That ministry eventually took Andy to the United Nations as American Ambassador in the administration of President Jimmy Carter. And later he carried out his mission as the second African-American mayor of Atlanta, intentionally focussing on tasks of reconciliation and economic empowerment.

Since that time, Young has chosen to live out his servant-leadership in search of solutions to the problems of Africa and other parts of the human community whose people live on the brittle tenuous edges of “the global community.” Presently he is chairman of Goodworks International, a consulting firm specializing in encouraging economic development in Africa and the Caribbean. Young is also president of the National Council of Churches for the 2000-2001 term. Approaching his seventh decade, Andy continues to run with patience the race of hope, integrity and great faith, defining his ministry as service to “the least of these,” no matter how long the journey or how great its demands.

Everything Has a Purpose

Vincent Harding: There came a point not too long after your graduation when you knew someplace deeply within you that what you needed to be and to do was to minister. How did that come to you? How did you come to know that so clearly as you came to know it?

Young: Well, it took me a long time but it began the day after my graduation from Howard University. It was the strength to rebel against my father that probably came on the way back from Howard. In those days you couldn’t stop at a motel or hotel so we planned our stops in areas where our church had either pastors we could stay with, or in this case, it was a church conference grounds in King’s Mountain, North Carolina.

V. Harding: This is the United Church of Christ or Congregational then…

Young: …United Church of Christ and we stopped there to spend the night. And they decided to stay another day because there was a church conference going on. I wasn’t at all interested in the church but I had been on Howard’s track team and I was still thinking of myself as possibly going to the Olympics. So I went out for a run. Mountains look close but it takes a while. By the time I really got to the top of that mountain, I was just completely exhausted. I was gasping for breath. I sat down on the rock and all of a sudden everything seemed to make sense. Looking out over that North Carolina countryside everything seemed to be purposeful: the meadows, the flowers, the pine trees, the water running through, the streams running through, the sky. It was an absolutely gorgeous day but it just broke through to me that everything in life has a purpose and there must be some purpose for me. I didn’t know what but I came down from the top of that mountain believing that the Creator of all of that natural beauty must have had something in store for me.

My minister then was a young fellow who had just graduated from Yale Divinity School and he asked me to ride with him to a church conference. When we finally got to this church conference center it was way back out in the woods and there was nobody black there, just Nick Hood and myself. He didn’t want me to leave him there by himself. It was right near San Antonio in Texas, but “right near” in Texas is 200 miles. So I wasn’t about to leave to go at night so I ended up staying all that day. The next morning Nick was leading Bible study and as part of our Bible study he gave us the scripture and everybody found a rock and went and sat out by the lake for an hour. There was a period of meditation and it was almost as though the Bible verses were written for me. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed that you should go and bear fruit.” “To them to whom much has been given of them will much be required.” “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you, as well.” I mean, every scripture.

On the Meaning of Ministry

V. Harding: Most people in most places when they hear “ministry” and certainly “Christian ministry,” they are seeing somebody up in a pulpit or something like that, reading from the Bible, saving people, assuring them eternal life, whatever it might be. But you have had a rather strange path of ministry and some people, I’m sure, are not quite certain what that’s all about.

Young: I was led one step at a time. A couple of things: at that first conference a young fellow from the Church of the Brethren gave me a book of Gandhi. I had never read Gandhi before. Also at that conference, who came later was Eduardo Mondlane who was the founder of the FRELIMO Movement in Mozambique. He and I were the only two blacks there for a while and we talked about changing the world. Reading Gandhi, I knew that this was relevant to the south and I didn’t know how. When I left seminary I wanted…again, I was still trying to run. I signed up to go to New York to run with the Pioneer Track Club.

V. Harding: One of the best track clubs in the world.

Young: Yeah. I had run with them in exhibitions and they were a good bunch of guys. My mother didn’t want me to stay in New York. She got to the Conference Superintendent who then called me and said, “Look we have this little church in Alabama and they don’t have a minister, they haven’t had a minister. It’s really falling down. Can you go there for the summer?” I was in tears because I wanted to run and he’s . . .

V. Harding: …Sending you to Alabama.

Young: So I go to Alabama and right there in Alabama I find the daughter of one of my church members who was a student at the same Church of the Brethren school as this guy who gave me the book of Gandhi. That was the first young woman I had ever met who ever heard of nonviolence. Nobody at Howard talked about nonviolence even though Mordecai Johnson and Howard Thurman had been there but it hadn’t gotten to me particularly. She had read the New Testament and it was underlined. This was a Revised Standard Version. That was very unusual. Sure enough, I just took it for granted this was the woman I was going to marry. So it seemed like the Lord was looking out for me in ways that I could not have looked out for myself. It was all opening up.

Going to a little church in Georgia after we married and after seminary one of my members got in a fight with his wife on the day I was supposed to be preaching on family relations. It was Mothers’ Day. Here one of the deacons and the mothers of the church got in a fight. He came home drunk. She went after him with an axe handle. In trying to take the axe handle from him, she got a black eye and he had a big knot on one side of his face. They were sitting up in church and I’m supposed to be preaching on family. Well fortunately, I figured this out in Sunday School and I was trying to figure out how I could change the sermon and somebody told me what happened. That he’d been caretaker on this plantation. He was in his forties — twenty-some years. A young white fellow half his age came and he had been training him for the last week on how to work on the plantation. He had seen the checks on that Friday. He got his regular forty-five dollar check for his week’s work. The young white boy that he was training got a check for seventy-five dollars. And he couldn’t take it. And he got drunk. It wasn’t something he normally did but it was something his wife would not tolerate under any circumstance. But in realizing, in dealing with that (and I ended up talking about it), it was the frustration over the system that was interfering with his acting like a child of God and that was interfering with their relationship as husband and wife. In preaching about [it], preaching my way through that sermon, I said, you know, you cannot tell people they are God’s children and then have them treated like niggers. Or [have] second class citizenship six-and-a-half days a week and the three hours they are in church, they are God’s children. It didn’t make sense. The society had to be brought in line with the Gospel.

So I ended up volunteering for voter registration drives. I did a religious emphasis week over at Talladega College. And who was the other speaker but Martin Luther King, Jr.! We got to talking and it was clear that our ministry in the south, in terms of Ephesians, had to break down this dividing wall of hostility between black and white. Just as in Paul’s time, Christ came to break down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Greek. For us the dividing wall of hostility was race. We really thought of ourselves as ministering very much in the fashion of Apostle Paul. We went to Birmingham, to Selma, to Greenwood, Mississippi, you know, over to Savannah, down to St. Augustine, and that was like Paul going around ministering to the churches and so that was a very easy transition.

Readying for Reconciliation

R. F. Harding: Walter, your brother, said he was always happy that you were the one who was working with Martin because he was sure he wouldn’t have the patience, the discipline, or whatever it took to really go through this forgiveness, and acceptance of people who were just so cruel. Young: Martin used to say about me and Walter Fauntroy, he said, “Andy, you and Walter Fauntroy are too normal and well-adjusted. You would try to teach black folk how to adjust to segregation.” He said, “You need some wild crazy folk like [James] Bevel, and Hosea [Williams], and [Randolph] Blackwell, and others who just can’t take it.” He said, “Then let them alone. Let them stir it up. Then you all can go ahead and reason with people. But you don’t reason with people until they’re stirred up, you see. You can’t cover over an abscess. You have to expose it to the light.” Then he said, “After it’s exposed, then you can, you know, heal it.” So it was almost roles that he put us in. He was always…well he did his Ph.D. on Hegel and so he was always struggling with these very dialectic approaches to things. So he put me in a certain role to sort of balance out where the others were.

V. Harding: On this matter of being in the movement in the south with Martin: I remember especially, the times when Martin would ask you and me to find the white people who wanted to talk. Was that also part of this sense of ministry for you?

Young: It was, because, again, we were talking about reconciliation. I mean the whole path of nonviolence was investigation, attempt at negotiation. Only when there was no willingness to negotiate did you demonstrate. But after things got stirred up in demonstrations, you had to move toward reconciliation. Even before the demonstrations started good in Birmingham (we had set the date for them), I started trying to establish ties with the good white folks I knew. We ended up with Bishop Murray who was the suffragan bishop. We asked him to pull together a group of business people and after I had met with them a couple of times, they invited Martin and Fred Shuttlesworth in, and Ralph Abernathy. And we had a face-to-face meeting where, one, they couldn’t demonize us and think that we were crazy. Also, we began to realize that there were some white people who were not like Bull Connor and who were not like George Wallace. So we had laid the ground work for reconciliation even before the demonstrations picked up.

Redemptive Suffering

V. Harding: As you think about your time in the movement, do you think there are some ways in which that movement experience affected, changed, developed your own spirituality?

Young: Well you couldn’t be in the movement without dealing with the power of the cross. The power of Christianity is in the power of what Martin said, that unearned suffering is redemptive. When we saw people — when we saw them suffer and yet rise up stronger, you saw that. I went to get Fannie Lou Hamer out of jail after they had beaten her for almost a week. She came out like she had been born again. I mean it was…if there had been any doubts about her commitment unto death in the movement, they were all over when she came out of the jail in Winona [Mississippi]. You saw that. You saw people the time Blackwell was shot in Greenwood [Mississippi]. People didn’t even think. If they shoot somebody and you run, they shoot everybody. If you shoot at somebody and they go down temporarily and you crowd in and bring 100 more people to replace them, then they get the notion that it doesn’t help to shoot people. So there was a constant willingness to suffer in confidence that God could use that suffering to change America.

The slogan of Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was “To Redeem the Soul of America”. That’s what the movement was all about. It was to redeem the soul of America from the triple evils of racism, war and poverty. It was through giving your life and risking your life in service. People say “Well, Martin was killed.” Yes, but they were singing “We Shall Overcome” ten years later and the Berlin Wall was coming down. There was a kid standing in front of a tank in China. There was Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu coming out of jail and reconciling blacks and whites. I mean, we used to sing the song “The Spirit is A-movin’ All Over the Land.” Well, you saw a Martin Luther King more powerful in death than he had been in life. You see some of the words (some of the words that you helped craft, incidentally) now coming back as poetry from a day gone by, which is still as powerful and prophetic, maybe even more so, than it was when it was uttered.


Taylor Branch. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988

Taylor Branch. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998

Andrew Young. A Way Out of No Way: The Spiritual Memoirs of Andrew Young. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994

Andrew Young. An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America. New York: HarperCollins, 1996

Video and DVD

Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years. Blackside, Inc, 1986
(Available from PBS Home Video — online at

Web Links

The National Civil Rights Museum in downtown Memphis, Tennessee has a website which includes a virtual tour of the museum’s permanent exhibition chronicling the history of the civil rights struggle in the United States. link

The Martin Luther King Jr., Papers Project at Stanford University is a major research effort to assemble and disseminate historical information concerning Martin King and the movements in which he and his colleagues participated. The project includes correspondence, sermons, speeches, published writings and unpublished manuscripts. Many of these items contain references to Andrew Young, King’s close friend and co-worker. link

Goodworks International, LLC is an international consulting firm, co-founded by Andrew Young and focused on fostering economic development in African and the Caribbean through strategic partnerships with private sector corporations. link

The National Council of Churches is the nation’s leading organization of Protestant and Orthodox denominations including nearly 140,000 congregations nationwide. The NCC works with partners in more than 80 countries, including the United States, in ministries of disaster relief, development and refugee assistance; unity, justice, education, and public witness. Andrew Young was president of the organization in 2000-2001. link