In New Documentary, Whitney Young Speaks to Social Workers of Today

Bust of Whitney Young in Social Work Library

Bonnie Boswell, an award-winning television newscaster, has developed a new documentary that chronicles the life of her uncle, social worker and civil rights activist Whitney Young Jr. (1921-71).

Boswell says she made the film to show how relevant Young's approach as a mediator is to today's youth who seek to become agents of social change. As she told the Chicago Tribune:

He said he couldn't tell young people to become another Martin Luther King Jr. or a Malcolm X. They were larger-than-life figures. But he could tell young people to become another Whitney Young. He had skill sets that can be taught and have everyday applications. He was a bridge builder, and we need that now more than ever.

And, if Boswell’s film speaks to the kind of young people who might become students at CUSSW, it also speaks to the history of the school itself, which houses a collection of Whitney Young materials. Appropriately, Dean Jeanette Takamura was a panelist last month on a special screening of the film, held at the Ford Foundation headquarters.

Connection to the Columbia U. School of Social Work

Have you seen it? Whitney Young’s bust, along with a showcase of materials relating to his life, is in the alcove near the break-out rooms in the Social Work Library at the Columbia University School of Social Work. His papers are part of the Library's permanent collection.

He is a celebrated figure at CUSSW because of the connection between the New York School of Philanthropy, the School's predecessor, and the National Urban League, where Young served as executive director from 1961 until his untimely death ten years later.

Faculty and staff at the New York School developed the original ideas that led to the creation of the League in 1911, the first community-based civil rights organization of its kind in the nation.* When he took over the League at the age of 40, Young literally made it younger. He substantially expanded its fund-raising ability and, most critically, made it a full partner in the civil rights movement. He energized the institution.

Young also served as President of the National Association of Social Workers, (NASW) during the civil rights movement under President Lyndon Johnson, the first African American to do so.

But it was his position at the helm of the National Urban League that gave him access to the board rooms of America.

A master strategist, he engaged America’s most powerful business leaders in helping to support Black institutions and policies that would serve all people of color well. For instance, he pushed major corporations to hire more blacks. He understood that the community needed both money to support its human rights activities and the endorsement of key power brokers from white as well as black communities.

Because he could move effectively within and between these two communities and power structures, Young's efforts went through periods of being widely misunderstood. He was sometimes rejected by his own people and, according to Boswell, at one point earned the epithet of an “Uncle Tom”.

Undeterred, Young was able to make great strides in his too-short life, influencing the War on Poverty and other Johnson-era initiatives. Most notably, he put forward a domestic "Marshall Plan", a 10-point program designed to close the huge social and economic gap between black and white Americans (and thereby offering Blacks a measure of restitution). The plan significantly influenced the discussion of the Johnson administration's War on Poverty legislation and policies on federal aid to cities.

Young also fought for and won $28 million from the Nixon administration to support National Urban League programs for the poor.

His principal legacy was to open doors for those who previously were relegated to the sidelines.

Dean Takamura a Panelist for Special Screening at Ford Foundation

Ford Foundation panel on Whitney Young documentary

Boswell's documentary, The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights was screened last month before a sold-out audience of special guests at the Ford Foundation's headquarters in Manhattan. CUSSW's dean, Dr. Jeanette C. Takaamura, was one of the panelists who discussed the film after the screening.

She was joined by:

All four panelists agreed that the Black community and women's groups are indebted to Whitney Young's inspired leadership of the National Urban League beginning in 1961. He secured essential support for the League from the Rockefellers and other wealthy Americans, eventually recruiting Vernon Jordan to serve as leader of what had become, under his tenure, one of the Black community's most influential organizations.

Crediting Young for his rise to the top of the National Urban League, Jordan acknowledged his steady, courageous, gifted leadership. Chenault and Parsons said that they would never have been head of American Express or Time Warner, except for the paths Young carved for talented young Blacks to follow.

The panelists went on to discuss the lack of a clear roadmap to leadership for persons of color. Takamura called Young "a highly developed human being who was adept at working with multiple contradictions in very complex environments," adding that "he was the soul of the social work profession and all it believed itself to be."

The panelists concurred that Young knew who he was, was true to himself (Parsons said Young embodied the line from Hamlet "To thine own self be true"), worked without anger for all of humankind, and was ahead of his time in his global vision.

—Contributed by ML Awanohara with input from Dean Takamura

* The director of the New York School of Philanthropy, Dr. Edward Devine, was a member of the League's first board. George Haynes—the first African American to receive a master's degree from CUSSW and receive a doctorate from Columbia University—was its first executive director. Thanks to the efforts of both Devine and Hughes, more than two hundred Urban League Fellows received graduate degrees from CUSSW.

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