Biography of Civil Rights Activist Whitney Young

The National Urban League leader won the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Whitney Young
Whitney Young with Sen. Charles H. Percy. UIC Digital Collections/Flickr.com

This biography of Whitney Young Jr. reveals how the civil rights activist stands out as the National Urban League’s most influential leader. During the decade he served as executive director, Young increased the civil rights group's budget 18-fold and pushed corporate America to provide more jobs for African Americans. He also swayed lawmakers to use federal funding to benefit inner cities.

The Early Years

Born July 31, 1921, in Lincoln Ridge, Ky., Young got an early start in the professional world.

At just 18 years old, he graduated from Kentucky State College and began a career teaching and coaching. Between 1942 and 1944, Young’s career took a turn while he served a stint in the U.S. Army. There, he demonstrated a flair for race relations by diffusing tensions between white and black soldiers working on a road construction project. After his discharge from the military, Young earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota.

In 1947, Young began volunteering for the NUL’s Minnesota chapter. Three years later, NUL’s Omaha chapter named him president. In Nebraska, Young not only expanded the membership of the NUL but helped score jobs for blacks in the community. All the while, he put this education to use by teaching social work at the university level. In 1954, he became social work dean at Clark Atlanta University. He served as a state president for the NAACP six years later and won a Rockefeller grant to study at Harvard.

The Voice of a Movement

As civil rights issues took center stage in the U.S., Young was named head of the NUL in 1961. During his tenure with the league, Young reportedly expanded its annual budget from $325,000 to $6.1 million. He also fought for cities to receive federal assistance to combat the social ills facing black America, a strategy President Johnson included in his War on Poverty platform.

Moreover, Young pressured corporations such as Ford to hire more African Americans and established programs for black community leaders and youth to tackle problems such as high school dropout rates.

To keep the American public abreast of the issues important to the NUL, Young launched a weekly column called “The Voice of Black America.” The fact that Young served as an advisor to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon contributed to his ability to effect groundbreaking changes as NUL head.

While serving as the NUL’s executive director, Young published a book called "To Be Equal" in 1964. The next year, he became president of the National Conference on Social Welfare. Young served as head of the National Association of Social Workers Foundation in 1969. During the same year, he released a book called "Beyond Racism: Building an Open Society" and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Johnson.

Young’s life came to an unexpected end when he drowned in Nigeria in 1971 at the age of 49. President Nixon eulogized him. Ironically, just two years before, a plot to murder Young had been uncovered.

Whitney Young’s Legacy

In 1973, the East Capitol Street Bridge in Washington D.C.

was renamed the Whitney Young Memorial Bridge. Twenty years later, the NASW named Young a Social Work Pioneer. Moreover, the Boy Scouts of America established the Whitney M. Young Jr. Service Award. Several high schools bear Young's name as well, including Chicago’s Whitney Young High School, which counts First Lady Michelle Obama as an alumna.