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Influencers with Andy Serwer: Andrew Young

In this episode of Influencers, Andy makes his way to Atlanta to sit down with civil rights leader and former Ambassador to the U.N., Andrew Young, as they discuss Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy, division in America today, and how Atlanta became the city ‘too busy to hate’.

Video Transcript

ANDY SERWER: In this episode of "Influencers," former Atlanta mayor and civil rights leader Andy Young.

ANDREW YOUNG: We have people who don't understand that progress motion is inevitable, and you cannot stop it.

White supremacy is a sickness. And you don't get angry and upset with sick people.

Martin Luther King is more powerful spiritually now than he was when he was physically alive.


ANDY SERWER: Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer, and welcome to our guest Ambassador Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta. We're in his house in Atlanta. Former congressman, civil rights leader, iconic American, Ambassador Young, so great to see you.

ANDREW YOUNG: Well, very good to see you.

ANDY SERWER: I want to start out and ask you about this city and business people and politicians and the way you were able to bring together progressive Black politicians in Atlanta with conservative white business leaders to help take Atlanta to another level, help it become an international city. How did you put those groups together?

ANDREW YOUNG: Well, you know, my first term in Georgia was as a pastor in Thomasville, Georgia. And I had agreed to run a voter registration drive there. And when I agreed to run it, I didn't think there'd be any problems, but it turned out that the Saturday before, we were starting on Sunday.

We were driving into town from Moultrie, Georgia, and I came around the corner. And I was in a-- it seemed like 1,000 people in sheets and pointed hats. And it hit me that this is the first time I'd seen the Klan in South Georgia, and that they might be coming after me. Well, trying to figure out how to deal with that, my wife suggested that why don't I talk to the mayor.

And I was surprised at how easy it was. The mayor ran the local hardware store, Mayor Watt. And he called-- he didn't answer me. He called Sunnyland Packing Company and Flowers Bakery, who were the two largest employers. And both of them told him that, we don't want any race troubles in this town. And you should keep the Klan on the courthouse square and don't let them march in the Black community. And have one of your Sheriff's cars out there at the church when they start to drive so that they don't have any incidents out there.

Well, that let me know that in the South, as in almost everywhere else, the business community has a lot of influence and they have the most influence. That was true-- it was true-- it's true everywhere. And so I developed from that point-- when we went to Birmingham with Martin Luther King, I set up-- he asked me, you think you can get to know some white folks here in Birmingham? I said, well, I can try.

And I went through the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Archbishop, gathered a group of businessmen. And we started negotiations and discussions about desegregating Birmingham almost two months before the demonstration started. So that-- well, in New Orleans, where I grew up, I was in a mixed up neighborhood. Irish grocery store on one corner, Italian bar on the next corner. The headquarters of the Nazi party was on the third corner. And a Chevrolet dealership around the fourth corner. And I was literally smack dab in the middle.

And so from four years old-- I was 4 in '36, 1936. And for my father to explain to me about white supremacy, he took me to see Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics and how Jesse Owens ignored Hitler and just concentrated on winning his four gold medals. And his message was, don't get mad. White supremacy is a sickness. And you don't get angry and upset with sick people. Your mind is the best thing you got to deal with them. And you try to understand them as well as you can, but it's really not your problem. And it's their problem. But you don't get mad, you get smart.

And that's just sort of the way I grew up. He was a dentist. And if he had to go down to a dental supply place in the middle of the day, he'd make me go. And the only thing I didn't like about it, they would never let me go downtown in the play clothes I had. They would make me dress up and put on a tie or a dressy shirt. And I couldn't go downtown. And he said, look, he said, if you go in town in the stores raggedy, they'll assume you're stealing and you're in trouble. If you're going downtown, look like you're going down for business.

And so it was all part of surviving in the South. And I started out in very difficult circumstances, but it came easy to me.

ANDY SERWER: Right. Well, it sounds like this whole background of seeing different people and then understanding how important it was to communicate and not getting angry, and then seeing the power of the church and then the power of business people informed you and helped you bring people together here in this city. And so what is it about Atlanta that you're most proud of at this point?

ANDREW YOUNG: I think I'm most proud of the fact that we set out a slogan, "A City Too Busy To Hate", and it looks like we're living up to it, you know. That-- when that was selected-- and I think it was selected by an employee of Coca-Cola. And it was a good, good slogan. The lady's name was Helen Bullard, And she was very sensitive. She worked for Mr. Woodruff, and she worked for Ivan Allen, the mayor.

And it was understood that Atlanta was about business. It didn't have time for racism and for keeping anybody down. It was a city that was supposedly lifting everybody up. Now, we were a unique city because in the '40s and '50s, when all of this was going on, we probably had more Black PhDs in Atlanta than anywhere else in the world.

Because you see, you had people like WEB Du Bois, Lester Granger, the founder of the Urban League, Whitney Young came through Atlanta University School of Social Work, Dr. Benjamin Mays, and Howard Thurman, a theologian. All of them were-- well, you had two or three Black PhDs from Ivy League universities who were the first to get them from those universities.

And the lady who was in charge of the Urban League took Ivan Allen, the mayor then-- he wasn't the mayor then, he was still president of the Chamber of Commerce-- took him out to Atlanta University complex. And they realized that-- well, mayor Hartsfield had just lost the election. And he lost the election because he wanted to build an airport. He gave Delta all the land they wanted for $1 a year for 50 years. People didn't understand that. And he put a red light on Peachtree St.


ANDREW YOUNG: And they voted him out. And I think the business community decided, whether they admitted it or not, but Mrs. Hamilton decided that there weren't enough race-free white people to move the city forward. And that if the city was going to move forward, it was going to have to be a coalition of the Black intellectuals and the white business community. And that's what made Atlanta work.

ANDY SERWER: Right. I want to ask you your thoughts on the current environment, though. I mean, it seems like we made a lot of progress in a lot of ways in America. But lately, things have not been progressing, I think, some people would argue. Obviously, we have a very divisive society right now. Politics in Georgia have been fraught. And so what is your assessment?

ANDREW YOUNG: Well, this is going to seem arrogant of me, forgive me. But it is intelligence versus ignorance. I hope this doesn't sound as bad as it is. But change is inevitable.

My office downtown is full of globes and they are all spinning. And it reminds me that nothing keeps still in this universe. Nothing. The 100 million cells in your body are constantly in motion, see? And we have people who don't understand that progress motion is inevitable. And you cannot stop it. You can't stop the world from spinning, see? And the more it spins and the more the genes and cells in our bodies multiply, the more confusion you're going to have.

And it happens-- what was it? 14th century plague. And right after the First World War-- I mean, between the First and Second World War, we had a flu epidemic. And I was not born yet, but my mother had three sisters that died in that. And I grew up around here when Franklin Roosevelt was coming to Florida. I mean, to Warm Springs because of his polio. And the first thing I did in Georgia was work on a polio campaign to buy Black lungs for people who were suffering from polio.

But then we found a vaccine, and Jonas Salk, and we evolved. And I actually took part in a campaign with Ted Turner and Rotary and folk that I think they recruited me because the last place that they had not wiped out polio was in the North of Nigeria, and I had a lot of friends in Nigeria, had a lot of classmates from Nigeria and college. And I went there with Carter and with Ted Turner, encouraging people to be vaccinated.

And so we wiped out polio. It looks like it's sneaking back now. But the Earth is a constant, volatile, in motion operation. And it's not going to stay the same. But we have the authority-- and I'm a preacher. And I think of it as a God-given authority. That God has given us dominion over the Earth and we are to protect it and preserve it. And so when things like global warming come, it's taken us a long time, but Joe Biden got a bill passed last night, see?

But we've been moving in this direction for a long time. Now, that's coming back to Atlanta. That's what makes Atlanta work, that Atlanta decided-- and I give Coca-Cola a lot of credit for this-- that they decided they were going to be a city too busy to hate. And it was probably-- well, before that, Mr. Woodruff decided that anywhere in the world that our troops went in World War II, they should be able to have a Coca-Cola. Well, whether it was patriotic or business, it was damn good on both counts.

ANDY SERWER: Right, right.

ANDREW YOUNG: See? And it has kept us being rather progressive in our thinking, knowing that nothing stands still.

ANDY SERWER: You have worked with so many remarkable Americans, remarkable people from around the world. But probably none more so than Martin Luther King. And I have to ask you, what he was like, what it was like working with Dr. King?

ANDREW YOUNG: Well, you have to remember, when I met him, he was 26 and I was 23, 24. And he was just a really easygoing, humble, lot of fun, cracked a lot of jokes, always picking on people in a very loving, friendly way. He had a way of teasing you by reminding you of your faults and your weaknesses. And he was also a comedian. I mean, he loved to tell stories, and mostly preacher stories, making fun of preachers and people in his own profession.

But he grew up in Atlanta on Auburn Avenue, literally. Auburn Avenue, in his childhood, had everything. It had all of the churches, all of the prostitution, all of the gambling, all of those pool halls, the YMCA. And so he was really comfortable with all kinds of people. And he grew up spending a lot of time in the YMCA. And so nobody ever thought of him as a good athlete. But even though he was just 5'7", was a good basketball player because he was very quick and he could shoot with either hand.

But he grew up in the Y. He could-- the YMCA in those days had pool tables and ping pong tables. So he could shoot pool and he could play table tennis. And he was just an all around good guy and he got along with everybody.

One of his best friends was a kid that-- I don't know how old he was when he met him-- but he found him looking for food in a garbage can. And he stopped him from eating out of the garbage can and took him home to his house for lunch. And the Reverend Fred C. Bennett, he followed after Martin Luther King. But whereas Martin was small, he was a huge guy. He was 230, 240 pounds. And they were like best friends. But he was also very friendly with all of the graduate students and professors.

But Fred Bennett stayed with him until he dies. And when he went to Montgomery for the Freedom Rides, they threw-- well, they didn't know what kind of bomb it was. They threw it up on the porch of the church just as Martin was coming out and Fred knocked him back into the church and picked up the bomb and threw it over into the parking lot. And he was the kind of guy that would give his life without thinking about it. I mean, he was that way with Martin. And then he sort of adopted me and decided after Dr. King's death he was going to take care of me.

ANDY SERWER: Let me ask you about that, Ambassador. And maybe this is painful, but I want to ask you. You were there on that morning, April 4, 1968, in Memphis when Dr. King was killed. What was that like? What happened that morning?

ANDREW YOUNG: Well, I was in court. And all of-- trying to get permission to march with the sanitation workers. And the court pretty much was deciding in our favor. And I came back to his room, which was downstairs in the Lorraine Motel, and there was his brother and this fellow Bennett and all of his friends. And somebody had brought in a whole platter of catfish, and they were having a good time. I mean, I hadn't seen him laugh at a joke like that.

When I came in, he started picking on me. I said, well, wait a minute, I was trying to keep you out of jail, let you march, you want to march. And he thought I was-- well, I was standing up to him. And he says, oh, you a smarty, huh? And he picked up the pillow on the bed and he threw it at me.

Well, I'd never seen him that kind of playful. So I threw it back at him. And everybody picked up pillows and they started beating me down between these two double beds. And it was like 12-year-olds. And I had never seen him so happy because he was with his closest friends for most of his life. And just in the middle of this, somebody knocked on the door and said, you all are supposed to be at my wife's house for dinner at 6:00, and it's quarter to 6:00.


ANDREW YOUNG: No, evening.

ANDY SERWER: Oh, this is the night before.

ANDREW YOUNG: Yeah, this is the evening.


ANDREW YOUNG: And he went up to his room to put on a shirt and tie. But I had not seen him that relaxed and joyful, I don't know whether ever. And he went upstairs to his room and I was down in the parking lot still clowning and shadowboxing with a guy, another big guy, big football player from around Birmingham, and a shot rang out. And I ran. The atmosphere was such that I thought he was kidding. I thought he was joking because I didn't see him and I thought he played like he was staggering back in the room. When I ran up the steps, I saw he was laying in a pool of blood.

But the bullet had hit the tip of his chin and severed his spine. And I doubt that he-- I doubt that he heard the shot because the bullet travels faster than sound. And I even doubt that he felt anything because that shot severed his spinal cord. And it took a while for his heart to stop beating, but--

He talked about death all the time. And he was always joking about death. And he said death is the ultimate democracy. I don't care what color you are, how rich you are, how poor you are, you're going to die.

And one of his favorite pastimes was deciding that you were going to die, I was going to die. And then he'd say that, now you will be a challenge. How can I preach your sorry ass into heaven? And he'd make you laugh at your death. Because then he would start making your case before God, but he never talked about anything that was worthwhile. He would always talk about your weaknesses. But that was the way he made us comfortable with death. He talked about death all the time.

But my grandmother used to talk about death. And in the Black community, death is not something you fear. It's something that you accept as inevitable. And my grandmother lost her sight when she was in her 80s. And she used to fuss with God about keeping her there too long, that she was ready to go on home to glory. And she would recite all of the things that she'd done that made her deserving.

And she did have a reputation of-- well, this was in the depression and we were not far from the railroad tracks. So all of the hobos, we called them back then, would come by our house. And I remember being out there on the porch, front steps, and a guy comes by and says, they tell me, there's a goodhearted colored woman here that will give anybody who's hungry something to eat. Does she live here? I say, yeah, you must be talking about my grandmother.

And that was the reputation she had. I don't know how far it went, but she felt that she was entitled to her heavenly reward. And Martin kind of felt that way too. I mean, he had no fear of death. And he made us comfortable with the possibility of our own death by making fun of us as though he were preaching our funeral. And so it-- well, there's a passage in the Bible, Elijah going to heaven on a flaming chariot. And I got pulled out of Sunday school one day because I said, I don't believe that. I said it out loud. So they sent me to the superintendent, who was my mother.

But that's what I thought about when I saw Martin Luther King there go into glory. And what I said, I said out loud to him, you can't go to heaven and leave us in hell. We can't make it without you. You can't go yet.

But what I didn't understand then that I do now, it's been over 50 years and Martin Luther King is more powerful spiritually now than he was when he was physically alive. That he's quoted more-- I mean, I'm always shocked at-- well, the other night on MSNBC, somebody said, Dr. King used to say the moral arc of the universe is long and it bends toward justice. I mean, that's a quote from 60, 70 years ago, but it's still a relevant interpretation of our life, our struggles on this Earth. And I think it's because I had the childhood training with my grandmother and the young adult training with him that I don't have any questions, any doubts about this not being the end for us.

ANDY SERWER: Well, that's good to hear. We're getting low on time here, and so I just want to ask you a final question. What are you, Ambassador Young, most proud of in your career, which is so voluminous?

ANDREW YOUNG: No. I got sent down to Saint Augustine, Florida in June of 1964. And Dr. King sent me down there to stop the movement because it was so violent that he was afraid that-- I mean, it was violent because Black people were getting beat up. And he said he didn't want it to break out in violence. And he sent me down there to stop it.

Well, when I went down, Hosea Williams said, you know, Dr. King has sent Andy Young down here to lead this movement. Who's going to lead the movement downtown with Andy? And I said, Hosea, Martin sent me down here to shut this movement down. He said, you can't do that, Andy. You can't do that. These people will going before we got here. They're going to be going after we gone. And I wouldn't argue with him.

So I figured I could walk, lead the march. And when they saw that there were a couple of Klansmen in the park and they were drunk and they were making a whole lot of whooping and holler and breaking bottles and chains and things like that. And I asked them to pray and that we can go back after we pray. Instead of wanting to go back, they started-- one old lady started singing, be not dismayed, whatever be tired, God will take care of you. And I said, Oh, hell.

I was trying to get them to go back because it was just-- it was shameful. And really, the Klan had been deputized by the sheriff to beat up people. And so I was left to have the lead them down, and I led them down.

And I always figured I could talk to anybody, including the Klansmen. And so I left them on one side of the street and I went across to the other. And I was trying to convince them that we should be able to march through this park to the slave market. And somebody came up behind me and kicked me and they kicked me around. And I didn't feel anything. But when I came to, I figured we couldn't go back now. I had to go back, go to the next corner.

And this time, a fellow by the name of Sergeant [INAUDIBLE], great big guy, 6' 6", was a city policeman. And they were different from the Sheriff's men. And he said, when they kind of swung at me and I ducked, he said, you all need to leave these people alone. Let them march where they want to go. You're going to fool around here and kill somebody, and you really will be in trouble. And because of his authority, they let us march through.

But that's the only movement where we had more money spent on injuries than we did on bail. And when we didn't respond violently, the Klan decided to march in a Black community. And you didn't know what was going to happen then. But that Saturday, the Klan marched and these really faithful, sincere people started singing, I love everybody. I love everybody in my heart. I feel the love of Jesus. I feel the love of Jesus in my heart. You can't make me doubt him. I know too much about him. I got the love of Jesus in my heart.

And it was such a contrast from the violence and bloodshed that they had inflicted on us. For the people to respond with that loving melody, I think, was one of the things-- that was a Saturday-- that that helped break the filibuster that Monday. And the next week, the Civil Rights Act of '64 was signed.

Now, the problem is nobody knows about that because there was little and nothing in the newspapers about the Saint Augustine march. But it had been going on. The governor's mother and the Episcopal Bishop's wife from Boston had come down there. I mean, it was known, but it was not-- it was not one of the big things like Birmingham or Selma. But the message got through. And I think that that was-- this probably the most significant thing I've done. It made possible all the other things.

ANDY SERWER: It's remarkable that you pick that moment out. But I understand when we got to it.

ANDREW YOUNG: I didn't know about it.


ANDREW YOUNG: I mean, I didn't even realize what happened until 10 years later when Flagler University decided to Institute a Southern Studies program. And one of the young women in the class was the daughter of then police chief. And she found all of these films and things of my getting beat up, of Martin being put in jail. And it went almost unnoticed. But that also led to that passage of that bill, led to the Martin getting a Nobel Prize.

ANDY SERWER: So it was just something that began a chain reaction, if you will. And so, yeah, I mean--

ANDREW YOUNG: But that's the way history goes.

ANDY SERWER: Right. Yes.

ANDREW YOUNG: You never know-- you never know what it is that's going to motivate or move the country in the right direction.

ANDY SERWER: Right. Well, we're going to have to leave it at that. There are so many other amazing, remarkable moments we could spend many hours talking. But we've run out of time. Ambassador Andrew Young, thank you so much for talking with us.

ANDREW YOUNG: Thank you very much.

ANDY SERWER: Thank you from Andy to Andy. I'm Andy Serwer. You've been watching "Influencers." And we'll see you next time.