In their 30s, Civil Rights leaders changed world. Andrew Young, 60 years later, reflects on that.

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

DES MOINES, Iowa, March 9, 2024 – The recent visit by legendary Civil Rights Movement leader Andrew Young at Drake University stirred me even more deeply than I thought it would.

It made me realize again how much a hero Young has been to me, just as he was to my older brother, the late Tom Offenburger.  Tom died at the age of 52 in 1986 while undergoing heart surgery in Atlanta, Georgia, for repair of his aorta and heart valves, damaged by scarlet fever he suffered as a boy in our hometown of Shenandoah in southwest Iowa.

He spent the last 20 years of his life as press secretary, first to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Coretta Scott King, and then to his great friend Young.  He served Young when he was executive director of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, then four years in the U.S. House of Representatives, three years as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and then the first four years of Young’s two terms as mayor of Atlanta.

As I wrote in a column right before Young’s appearances at Drake Feb. 26 and 27, that family connection gave me unusual experiences with the Civil Rights Movement in my college years.  And it’s given me enduring friendships for more than 50 years since then.

Andrew Young signs books for Chuck Offenburger and Chris Werner, with a Young staff member Samuel Bacote on the left and Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Ernie Suggs, who authored the book, on the right.

So now on the rare occasions when I get to see and talk again to Andy Young, who turns 92 this week, and when I realize that I’m 76 myself, well, I prize every minute of it.  And that’s regardless of whether it’s in a crowd or in personal chats or phone calls.

My sister Chris Werner, of Cedar Rapids, who has known Young almost as long as I have, joined me in a big crowd for his program at Drake.

The “Slay Fund for Social Justice,” endowed by 1970 DU grads Brent and Diane Slay, sponsored “A Conversation with Ambassador Andrew Young” before a crowd of about 300 students, faculty, staff and community members from Des Moines and beyond.

The moderator was Ernie Suggs, 46, a leading reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who two years ago wrote the book “The Many Lives of Andrew Young,” which they’ve been promoting. “We’ve been on tour for about two years now,” Suggs told the crowd, in opening. “I think of all the universities we’ve been to, this is probably the biggest crowd we’ve had.”

Suggs questioned Young for nearly an hour and then they took questions from the audience for another 20 minutes.  Young’s reflections about his life and career, and his stories about the movement, were as riveting as you’d expect.

“I knew life wasn’t fair, and I knew it was particularly unfair to people of color,” he said of his boyhood in New Orleans. “I accepted injustice for what it was.  Nobody was going to make it easy for me.  I had to figure out how to make it myself.  Maybe one of the ways I dealt with injustice was learning ways to keep it from happening to me.  It’s a luxury to be thinking that everything is going to be all right.  I learned to take it as a challenge to try to make it right.”

Young, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, said that when he has faced personal danger and deaths of family members, co-workers and friends over his long life, he thinks of an old hymn that begins, God is still on the throne/ And He will remember His own.

And then he drifted into the 1845 poem “Once to Every Man and Nation,” by James Russell Lowell, quoting these final lines about when we’re faced with choosing between good and evil:

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

Over and over in his long life, said Young, faith has helped him find “A Way out of No way,” as he titled a book of “spiritual memoirs” he wrote in 1994.

What I always seem to get back to, when I think of Rev. King, Andy Young and other key leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, is my amazement at how young most of them were when they changed the world.

King was 39 years old when he was killed on April 4, 1968. In 1963 at age 34, he was Time Magazine’s man-of-the-year. In 1964 at 35, he won a Nobel Peace Prize – the youngest person ever to do so. He had already changed not only the South, but also our whole nation and world. And he was gunned down at 39! As I’ve lamented before, oh, what might have been!

Among those who were with him in Memphis when he was killed, King’s immediate successor Abernathy was 42.  Young was 36.  Rev. James Bevel was 45.  Rev. Jesse Jackson was 27. Tom Offenburger, who was back in Atlanta that day, was 34.

Andrew Young and Tom Offenburger, long ago in Atlanta.

After I listened to Young at Drake, I began wondering what he must think, now in his 90s, about how much he and all the others accomplished when they were in their 30s?

Days later, in a phone call, I got the chance to ask him.

“Back then, I really didn’t think of myself as being young, and I don’t think most of the others did, either,” he said.  “Maybe it was the times.  A lot of opportunities had opened up early to us, unusual experiences.

“I’d come out of Howard University in Washington, D.C., then was at Hartford Theological Seminary, and by the time I was 23 or 24 years old, I was working for the National Council of Churches in New York City. On that job, I got to travel all over the country, to Europe, Africa and Latin America.  And for two years back then, I hosted the National Council’s TV show ‘Look Up & Live’ on CBS-TV.  I was already married and we’d started our family.  So, by the time I went to Atlanta and joined SCLC in 1961, I didn’t think of myself as being so young.  In fact, I thought of myself as one of the more experienced people there.”

Then he personalized it for me.

“Same thing with your brother Tom,” Young said.  “When he came to SCLC – was it ’66? – he’d been in the workforce about 10 years.  He’d had a lot of experiences as a reporter.  He was always so calm and humble.  He never raised his voice.  But when we’d be having staff meetings, he had a way of humbly raising a question that, in a soft way, would let us know that we probably didn’t know what we were talking about.”

Andrew Young with Chuck Offenburger and Chris Werner in Des Moines.

Tom had graduated from the University of Iowa in 1956 in political science.  He’d started his journalism career the same way our brother Dan and I did, writing sports for our hometown paper The Evening Sentinel when we were in high school.  Tom decided, after college, he wanted to continue in journalism, and why not aim high?  He went to New York City, started applying for media jobs and lucked into a reporting position with U.S. News & World Report magazine.

After a couple of years in New York, U.S. News moved him to Washington, D.C., to cover Congress for several years.  They moved him again, in the early 1960s – to open a Midwest bureau in Chicago.  That’s where, in 1966, he met King and Young when they were leading a march in the Cicero neighborhood, protesting racial injustices there. Their SCLC press secretary Junius Griffin was leaving the staff to return to corporate life, and King and Young were looking for a replacement.

“Have I ever told you about when we hired Tom?” Young asked me during his visit to Drake.

He met them during a press conference in Cicero.

“I’ve never forgotten it,” Young continued. “Tom came over to me and said, ‘I think I may be on the wrong side.’ Then he asked me ‘if you’d have any room for me on the King staff.’  I said, ‘Well, we’d love to have you, but we can’t afford you.’ He was making good money then, but he said that he was a bachelor and ‘it doesn’t take much for me to live.’  So we talked some more for a day or two, we made him an offer, I think, of about $100 per month. And he took it!”

Over the next 20 years, they were all involved in changing the South, the rest of the nation, and, as I said earlier, the world.

The age range of so many in the movement in the 1960s – from their late 20s to their early 40s – “was about perfect for the aggressive tactics we were using” in the protests, voter registration drives, boycotts, public rallies and marches, Young said. “But many of us also were married and had the responsibility of children, which meant we couldn’t be crazy out there.”

He said he always kept in mind some advice from his father.  “My dad always said, ‘Don’t get mad, get smart!’  He said, ‘Don’t lose your temper, especially in a crisis, because if you do, you’ll lose the battle.’ ”

Young also said that “we weren’t just operating out of the seat of our pants, either.  Martin (King Jr.) went to college in about 1947, and I went in 1948.  We both studied and were really inspired by people like Ralph Bunche and Mahatma Gandhi.  We studied activism and non-violence.”

Bunche was a professor at Howard U and an activist himself who was among the leaders of the NAACP and Urban League.  Gandhi was both a spiritual and political leader in India, serving in its congress in the 1920s and in 1947 leading the country to independence from Great Britain.

Books about and by Andrew Young.

All the progress that the movement made in the streets in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s was turned into political power after the death of King in ’68.

“The leadership of the movement came together then and decided that our next steps had to be into politics,” Young said.

He was on the front wave of that, in 1974 becoming the first Black since Reconstruction to be elected to Congress from the deep South.

“Having been aggressive in the movement helped me be aggressive in politics when I needed to be,” he said.

Thank goodness for all they accomplished, especially when they were so young.

In one of the many interviews Atlanta reporter Ernie Suggs did leading to the book “The Many Lives of Andrew Young,” Young told him about a conversation he had with King early in ’68.

“I remember him saying, ‘You know, we have to be clinically insane to think that a crazy bunch of young folk like you all,’ and he was talking about himself too, ‘would be able to change this world and redeem the soul of America.’  Then he said, ‘We probably won’t live past 40, but we should realize that we’re going to have to make it to at least 100, because it is gonna take at least that long to get the South straightened out.’  We were pretty much right on target.”

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

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