Andrew Young to share the stories of America’s Civil Rights Movement in visit to Drake U.

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

DES MOINES, Iowa, Feb. 24, 2024 – There are not many opportunities anymore to meet real leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, to hear them tell their stories, and ask them questions to help you understand one of the most momentous periods in American history.

But we get to do that here Monday night, at 7 p.m., when Drake University hosts a free program “A Conversation with Ambassador Andrew Young” at the Olmsted Center.

It will be moderated by Ernie Suggs, a reporter since 1997 for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who covers race, culture, and local and national breaking news.  In 2022, he completed an acclaimed biography, “The Many Lives of Andrew Young.” 

Andrew Young and Tom Offenburger were a team from Atlanta, to Washington, D.C., to New York City & around the world, and back to Atlanta. (Personal collection.)

Many will remember that Young, who is now 91 years old, was a key lieutenant of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the campaign for racial equality in the ’60s.  A United Church of Christ-ordained pastor, Young had led a couple of congregations before he was named executive director of King’s “Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Subsequently, he was elected to two terms in the U.S. House, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was elected mayor of Atlanta for two terms and led a major transformation of the Georgia city, including making it the host city for the 1996 Olympics. 

The last 25 years, Young has headed his own foundation, which has “focused on human rights, global health, economic development and leadership development,” according to its website.  He has also authored several books and produced several award-winning documentaries on historic leaders and events.

Andrew Young is often called “an American icon.”  And I consider him one of the most significant Americans of the past 70 years.  But I’m biased. 

For 20 years, he was one of the bosses and best friends of my late brother Tom Offenburger, who died during heart surgery in Atlanta at the age of 52 in 1986.  Tom, who’d been a national news and Congressional reporter the first half of his career, spent his last two decades as press secretary, first for MLK Jr., then for King’s successor at SCLC Rev. Ralph Abernathy, then for Congressman-Ambassador-Mayor Young.

In a follow-up phone chat Saturday morning, Young said “when Drake asked me to come, I just had to say yes.  First, it’s in Iowa and that’s the home of the Offenburgers. And there’s the fact that as a young track man at Howard University in Washington, D.C., I spent a lot of time dreaming of running in the Drake Relays – but I never made it.”

I’ve had some amazing experiences and great fun because of the friendship and support Young has shared with my extended family, and I’ve been mostly enjoying the memories of those in recent days.

There was April 4, 1968, when Young took-in me and another young student newspaper reporter when we showed up at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, hours after the assassination there of MLK Jr.  I’ve written about that before, and you can read one of the stories right here: https://offenburger.com/index.php/four-things-id-like-people-to-know-about-rev-mlk-jr-from-my-up-close-view/.

In a much happier meeting between Young and me in the fall of 1978, he was serving in New York City as U.N. ambassador.  I’d been writing my “Iowa Boy” columns for about a year at the Des Moines Register, and the bosses sent me to NYC to explore and write about it.  I walked out of the Waldorf-Astoria one late morning to see Ambassador Young walking right toward me, surrounded by aides and security guards, but brother Tom was not with them. Without thinking, I stepped right toward the ambassador, reached my hand out and yelled, “Andy!” Before I could say anything else, the security guards jumped toward me.  Thank goodness Young recognized me when he looked up. “He’s O.K.!” he yelled to the guards, then adding: “He’s Tom’s little brother.”  Then he shook hands with me, smirked and said, “So, what are you doing here, Offenburger? Are you still working for that fish wrapper in Des Moines?”

Tom Offenburger, in his early career. (Personal collection)

In the 1980s, both of us became bicycle riders – Young in Georgia, while I became co-host of the Register’s big bike ride RAGBRAI in Iowa.  We talked about riding with each other on each of our state’s rides.  “I never did get time to ride RAGBRAI, and I’ve always regretted that,” Young said Saturday.  “But I did ride across Georgia three or four times.”

When Tom died in 1986, Young led a contingent of Civil Rights Movement leaders and colleagues to the Offenburgers’ hometown of Shenandoah for the funeral at St. Mary’s Catholic Church.  Young, in fact, delivered a stirring eulogy, as you can read in that same story I linked up above here.  In an interesting extra tribute after the funeral, Young went to our town’s famous Earl May Seed & Nursery, bought a tree there and took it home to Atlanta, planting it in the lawn of City Hall as a memorial to Tom.

Over the years, there were many calls, cards and letters from the Kings, the Youngs and many others in Atlanta to my late mother Anna Offenburger and others in the extended family.  Young and his staff have been equally kind in helping my son Andrew Offenburger, now a history professor at Miami University in Ohio, with several of his writing projects.

Andrew Young, in his later years, when he was re-visiting his boyhood home in New Orleans. (Photo from the exhibit “The Many Lives of Andrew Young” at Drake University.)

Two years ago in March, when Andrew Young was turning 90, his friends in Atlanta sponsored several days of programs, concerts, a march and then a sit-down dinner for 1,800 in a downtown convention center.  I thought about driving down from Iowa and attending, but then thought, heck, I might not even be able to get close to Young, with so many people seeking time with him. 

But as I thought more of all he’d done for all us Offenburgers, I knew I wanted to be there – and made the long trip. 

It was a great couple days in Atlanta.  But as the big dinner was ending, I still hadn’t been able to see and shake hands with Young.  I saw security people leading him away from the stage, out a side door and down a hallway toward his ride home.  I walked up to another security officer at another door into that hallway, handed him my business card, quickly told him about my brother, and asked if he’d carry it back to Young.  He did, and next thing I knew, I was waved into the hallway. “He wants to see you back there,” the surprised officer said. 

I walked down the hallway, gave Young a big hug, and thanked him for giving us Offenburgers more than a half century of kindness and inspiration.

So, yes, count on me being at Drake Monday night.

A portion of the exhibit “The Many Lives of Andrew Young” in the library at Drake University.

All of the Andrew Young events at Drake are being sponsored by the “Slay Fund for Social Justice,” a fund endowed by 1970 DU grads Brent and Diane Slay.  They award grants “to Drake students, staff, and faculty engaged in the work of social justice.”  I love hearing there are still programs and resources like the Slay Fund at our colleges and universities in Iowa.

Part of the Young program is a free touring exhibit, one that is exceptionally good, titled “The Many Lives of Andrew Young,” same as the biography that came out two years ago. The exhibit has been featured all of February, for “Black History Month” at Drake, and you can see it until March 1.  It’s in the second-floor Reading Room in Cowles Library on the campus. 

It tells the story in fantastic photographs and quick-reading vignettes.  They’re handsomely presented on large canvas panels hanging around the perimeter of the Reading Room. Right there in the exhibit on Tuesday morning, Young plans to meet Drake students, professors and other university supporters for breakfast and conversation from 8:30 to 10 a.m.

He’s that kind of guy.

You can comment on this column below or write the columnist directly by email at chuck@offenburger.com.

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