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Perspectives | Reflections

Andrew Young reflects on his struggle in the civil-rights movement

By Mary Elizabeth Cronin
Seattle Times staff reporter

A pillow fight broke out at Memphis' Lorraine Motel on the afternoon the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy each lifted a pillow and pummeled Andrew Young, who had just returned from a day spent in court. He had been negotiating to remove the federal restraining order temporarily halting a march in support of the Memphis garbage workers' strike.

The pillow fight was a playful moment, one seldom told of in the serious and sometimes deadly 1960s struggle for civil rights. It's one of many poignant and intimate details Young includes in his memoir, "An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America" (HarperCollins; $27.50).

The civil-rights struggle is seen through his eyes. The son of a dentist and schoolteacher in New Orleans, Young and his family were middle class in income but second class in a society in which skin color determined where one could live, drink water or sit on a bus.

Young was in Seattle yesterday on the last leg of an 11-city speaking tour. He spoke last night at Mount Zion Baptist Church — a fitting locale, given that his calling as a congregationalist minister led him to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's civil-rights movement.

Young describes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as one of six main organizations then working for civil rights.

Yesterday, over coffee and an English muffin in a downtown restaurant, Young talked about his life, his 64 years showing in some salt in his pepper-black hair and a stockier build on his 5-foot-9 frame.

After King's assassination, Young served three terms as a Georgia congressman, two years as United Nations ambassador for President Jimmy Carter and two terms as mayor of Atlanta. Young and his wife, Jean, raised four children; she died of liver cancer in 1994.

He now is chairman of President Bill Clinton's Southern African Enterprise Development Fund.

"I like my life," Young says, his mouth easing into a sheepish smile as he shrugs his shoulders apologetically. "I've had a good life. I think the reason is my parents taught me that life is a burden. But if you take it one day at a time, it's an easy burden."

Young exudes contentment. He lived the biblical good life. He marched through the valley of the shadow of evil against segregation in Birmingham, to gain the right to vote in Selma. And the nation is better off because of it.

The controversy stirred by racism among Texaco executives underscores how far we've come as a society, Young told the racially mixed crowd of 150 or so at Mount Zion. "Twenty five years ago it was the rule. Now it is the exception."

The book also discusses the behind-the-scenes debates, preparation and intrigue that laid the foundation for the movement. Before each march, SCLC staff trained volunteers in the Gandhian principles of nonviolence and kept a dialogue open with their opponents in city government. "One of the principles of nonviolence is that you leave your opponents whole and better off than you found them," Young wrote.

Young is a self-avowed optimist, even while warning how the third evil King prophesied — poverty — continues to haunt the soul of America. Race was the first evil. Once King's efforts shifted from Southern desegregation to Chicago's "Movement to End Slums," he realized that while racism affected all blacks, poverty does not.

War was the second evil. Young sees progress on that front as well, in the anti-nuclear weapon movement, the thawing of the Soviet cold war.

But poverty remains. And while poverty and its symptoms occur disproportionately in African-American communities, poverty is not a black issue. When King was killed, he had just launched the Poor People's Campaign and was planning a march on Washington, D.C., with a coalition of 23 racial and economic groups.

Welfare legislation recently passed by Congress concerns Young: "In a sane, civil, intelligent and moral society you don't blame poor people for being poor. I predict that 25 years from now we are going to be just as embarrassed about homelessness as we are about racism."

The consummate diplomat, Young says Congress cornered Clinton into signing the bill. But, he says, creating economic opportunity needn't be a partisan issue. It comes down to dollars and cents: a four-year degree costs $20,000; a 10-year prison sentence costs $250,000.

"The encouraging thing is, if presented properly, this is something where Newt Gingrich, President Clinton and certainly Jack Kemp could find common ground. The situation is critical enough that we are going to have to do something soon. We have the knowledge. We have the money. We have the need. We have just lacked the leadership."

Young described the Memphis pillow fight as exhilarating after a tense week. They were jovial as they dressed for dinner. Young waited in the parking lot, shadowboxing with James Orange. He heard what sounded like a car backfire and glanced up to see King slumped on the balcony.

An assassin's bullet ended King's dream, but not Young's faith. Last night, as he quoted his family's standard Bible passage, "From those to whom much has been given will much be required," several people murmured "Uh-huh. That's right. Amen."

This story originally ran in The Seattle Times Nov. 13, 1996.

Copyright © 1996 The Seattle Times Company

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