Biography of Andrew Young, Civil Rights Activist

A Lifelong Freedom Fighter

Ambassador Young at UN Press Conference
American politician, diplomat, and United States Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young speaks at a UN press conference, New York, New York, 1977.

Chuck Fishman / Getty Images 

Andrew Young was born March 12, 1932 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is a pastor, civil rights activist, and former politician. As a Democrat, he was mayor of Atlanta, a U.S. congressman representing Georgia’s 5th District, and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. He also served as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and as pastor of various churches.

Andrew Young

  • Full Name: Andrew Jackson Young, Jr.
  • Occupation: Civil rights activist, politician, pastor
  • Born: March 12, 1932 in New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Parents: Daisy Young and Andrew Jackson Young Sr.
  • Education: Dillard University, Howard University, Hartford Seminary
  • Key Accomplishments: Atlanta mayor, US Ambassador to the United Nations, US House of Representatives
  • Spouses: Jean Childs (m. 1954-1994), Carolyn McClain (m. 1996)
  • Children: Andrea, Lisa, Paula, and Andrew Young III
  • Famous Quote: “It is a blessing to die for a cause because you can so easily die for nothing.”

Early Years

Andrew Young grew up in a middle-class Italian neighborhood in New Orleans. His mother, Daisy Young, was a teacher, and his father, Andrew Young Sr., was a dentist. His family’s privilege, especially relative to African Americans, could not shield Young and his brother, Walt, from the racial tensions of the segregated South. His father so feared for his children’s safety in this environment that he gave them professional boxing lessons to help them protect themselves, if necessary.

Andrew Young, American senator and civil-rights leader who began his career as a pastor, also worked with Martin Luther KIng, Jr. Young was the ambassador to the United Nations and the mayor of Atlanta.  CORBIS / Getty Images

In 1947, Young graduated from Gilbert Academy and enrolled in Dillard University. He ultimately transferred out of Dillard, receiving his bachelor’s degree from Howard University in 1951. He went on to get a divinity degree from Hartford Theological Seminary in 1955.

A Pastor, Pacifist, and Activist

Young’s early career as a pastor led to some significant changes in his life. At an Alabama church, he met his first wife, Jean Childs, with whom he would go on to have four children. He also served on the pastoral staffs of Georgia churches. Early in his career, Young took an interest in the philosophy of nonviolence and civil rights. His efforts to register African Americans in the Deep South to vote led him to meet the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and join the Civil Rights Movement. He faced death threats because of his activism but continued to advocate for voting rights.

He moved to New York City in 1957 to work with the National Council of Churches, but returned to the South to continue his civil rights activism in Georgia in 1961. He participated in the citizenship schools that taught rural blacks how to read and mobilize politically. African Americans who tried to exercise their voting rights in the Jim Crow South were often presented with literacy tests at the polls, though such tests were not routinely given to white voters. In fact, the examinations were used to intimidate and disenfranchise would-be black voters.

Andrew Young Speaks at MLK Funeral
Civil rights activist Andrew Young addressing the crowd at the funeral of assassinated American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968), Atlanta, Georgia, 9th April 1968.  Archive Photos / Getty Images

Young’s involvement with the citizenship schools and his relationship with King resulted in him taking a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement. Having successfully organized anti-segregation marches, Young proved himself a trustworthy activist, and he rose to the highest ranks of the SCLC. He became the organization’s executive director in 1964. During this tenure, he would serve jail time for engaging in civil rights protests in Selma, Alabama, and St. Augustine, Florida. But serving as the SCLC's executive director also led him to help draft important civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Together, these laws helped to strike down Jim Crow in the South.

While Young had enjoyed a great deal of success as a civil rights activist, the movement came to a halt with the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. As the turbulent sixties came to an end, Young transitioned out of the SCLC and into the political world.

A Rocky Political Career

In 1972, Young made history when he became the first black person to serve as a U.S. congressman from Georgia since Reconstruction. This victory came after he lost his bid to be congressman two years earlier. After winning his congressional campaign, Young continued to champion the causes he had as a civil rights activist, including anti-poverty and educational programs. He served in the Congressional Black Caucus and advocated for pacifism; he objected to the Vietnam War and established the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Portrait of Mayor Andy Young
Mayor Andy Young (1932- ) announces his bid to run for governor of Georgia with his wife Jean who stands at right. Bettmann / Getty Images

Young left Congress when newly elected President Jimmy Carter appointed him the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1977. In the role, Young advocated against racial apartheid in South Africa, but in 1979, he inadvertently sparked a controversy that led to his resignation from the post. He had a secret meeting with Zehdi Labib Terzi, the Palestinian Liberation Organization's U.N. observer. This was controversial because the U.S. is an ally of Israel and the Carter administration had promised that none of its officials would meet with the PLO until that organization formally recognized Israel’s existence. President Carter denied any responsibility for Young’s meeting with the PLO and had the unrepentant ambassador resign. Young said he felt that the secret meeting was in the nation’s best interest at the time.

The PLO controversy did not interfere with Young’s political career post-White House. In 1981, he successfully campaigned to be Atlanta’s mayor, a post he held for two terms. Afterward, he entered the 1990 race to become the governor of Georgia but lost the campaign. While the loss stung, Young also played a pivotal role in bringing the 1996 Summer Olympic Games to Atlanta. He said he wanted to show the public that Atlanta “is a world-class city” as well as “a brave and beautiful city.”

Young’s Influence Today

In the twenty-first century, Andrew Young has remained relevant. He has served in leadership positions for various organizations, including the National Council of Churches from 2000 to 2001. He also established the Andrew Young Foundation in 2003 to advocate for human rights throughout the African diaspora. 

Andrew Young
Author Kabir Sehgal, Author and Ambassador Andrew Young, and President Bill Clinton attend the "Walk In My Shoes: Conversations Between A Civil Rights Legend and His Godson on The Journey Ahead" Book Event at The Paley Center for Media on February 9, 2011 in New York City.  Brian Ach / Getty Images

Today, Andrew Young belongs to the select group of activists who directly witnessed the Civil Rights Movement unfold. He has documented his activism in several books, including 1994’s “A Way Out of No Way” and 2010’s “Walk in My Shoes: Conversations Between a Civil Rights Legend and His Godson on the Journey Ahead.”

Young has won a number of awards, most notably the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He’s also the recipient of the NAACP’s Springarn Medal and the Democratic Party of Georgia’s John Lewis Lifetime Achievement Award. Educational institutions such as Morehouse College and Georgia State University have named the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership and the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, respectively, after him. Young’s influential role in the Civil Rights Movement was also captured in the 2014 film “Selma,” which introduced a new generation of young people to his work.

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