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INDEPENDENT LENS: The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight For Civil Rights

Airs Monday, Feb. 15, 2016 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Whitney Young at a news conference.

Credit: Courtesy of Cecil Layne

Above: Whitney Young at a news conference.

Whitney Young, Jr., the civil rights champion who negotiated with top leaders of industry and government to create greater opportunities for minorities, is the subject of the documentary, "The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight For Civil Rights." The film premieres on INDEPENDENT LENS, hosted by Stanley Tucci. Narrated by Alfre Woodard, "The Powerbroker" is executive produced by Young’s niece, Emmy® Award-winning journalist Bonnie Boswell and produced by Ms. Boswell, her son Taylor Hamilton, and Christine Khalafian.

Photo credit: Courtesy of National Urban League

Whitney Young (right) with James Linen, Publisher, Time (left).

Photo credit: Courtesy of Chris McNair

Whitney Young speaks to women seated on a bench during the Southern Poverty Tour.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Lyndon Baines Johnson Library

Whitney M. Young talking to Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Photo credit: Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library

JFK, Whitney Young and Henry Steeger in the Oval Office.


Whitney Young, Jr. took the fight against discrimination directly to the powerful white elite, gaining allies in business and government. Who in your community is bridging the gap between people who don’t see eye to eye on key issues? How do they compare with Young in terms of leadership style? Weigh in

During the 1960s, as the executive director of the National Urban League, Young was one of the few African Americans who had the ears of those who controlled the levers of power: Fortune 500 CEOs, governors, senators, and presidents. He used these relationships to gain better access to employment, education, housing, and healthcare for African Americans, other minorities, and those in need. His unique position and approach earned him praise, but also scorn from the Black Power movement for being too close to the white establishment. While he is less known today than other leaders of the era because of the behind-the-scenes nature of his work, Young’s legacy and influence are still felt profoundly.

“I realized several years ago at a family gathering that while I knew Uncle Whitney through my personal relationship with him, my appreciation and understanding of his role in the Civil Rights movement was not all that different from the general public’s, which is to say, somewhat limited,” said Boswell. “During my college days, I was one of those who was critical of ‘Establishment’ leaders like Uncle Whitney. I decided to make this film in an effort to get to know him better and because I believe his story can teach us today about what it takes to make a democracy work.”

Ten years in the making, "The Powerbroker" is both a personal portrait of Young, drawing on the reflections of family members and never-before-seen home movies, personal photographs, and audio recordings, and a historical chronicle of how he applied the social service mission of the Urban League to realize the rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement.

The film features rare archival footage and exclusive interviews with a diverse array of people who worked with Young and who have been shaped by his work, including the late Dorothy Height, Pulitzer Prize winner Manning Marable, John Hope Franklin, Ossie Davis, and Howard Zinn, as well as, Julian Bond, Vernon Jordan, John Lewis, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Young’s biographer Dennis C. Dickerson, Donald Rumsfeld, Ramsey Clark, and others.

Born in 1921 in rural Kentucky, Young was the son of Whitney and Laura Ray Young. He attended the Lincoln Institute, a segregated school where his father served as principal; his mother was the country’s second African American postmistress. His parents had a powerful influence on him, instilling confidence, dignity, and a strong belief in empowerment through education in him. Young served in a segregated unit in the Army during World War II, where he frequently mediated tensions between the white and African American service members. The experience inspired Young to work in civil rights when he returned from the war.

After earning a degree from the University of Minnesota School of Social Work, he began working for different branches of the Urban League, and eventually became the executive director of the National Urban League in 1961. As the civil rights movement was gaining steam in the South, Young saw that the resolution-focused approach of social work was key to truly creating a society where minorities would have power and status equal to that of white Americans.

This would require that they have access to the same pillars of the American Dream: jobs, Healthcare, education, and housing. To achieve this, Young believed, those who controlled these institutions—policymakers, business leaders, and political leaders—would need to understand that creating greater racial diversity in these institutions was in both their moral and financial interest.

Young’s humor and charm made him welcome company among the power establishment, many of whom had had little contact with African Americans, and held stereotypes that soon faded through their relationship with him. His insider status made him indispensable in helping broker some of the key events of the civil rights era — the 1963 March on Washington and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

At the same time, younger black activists became disillusioned with the slow pace of change and began taking a more militant stance. Young became a target of intense scorn among Black Power leaders for his close relationships with those in the power elite, whom they saw as antithetical to their goals. They labeled him “Uncle Tom” and “Oreo” and Young received death threats.

He also faced criticism from Martin Luther King, Jr. for not opposing the Vietnam War. Young later said that he did oppose the war, but did not want publicly to criticize President Johnson, with whom he had worked closely to pass the Civil Rights Act.

Young died tragically in a drowning accident in Africa in 1971 at the age of 49. In the years following his death, many of those within the civil rights and Black Power movements who had criticized Young would come to acknowledge the enormous breakthroughs he achieved and admire the methodology and wisdom of his approach. As President Nixon said at his funeral, “He knew how to accomplish what other people were merely for.”

"The Powerbroker" is on Facebook. Past episodes of INDEPENDENT LENS are available for online viewing. INDEPENDENT LENS is on Facebook, Instagram, and you can follow @IndependentLens on Twitter.

Trailer: INDEPENDENT LENS: The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight For Civil Rights

Follow Whitney Young’s journey from segregated Kentucky to head of the National Urban League. (2013)

Video Excerpt: The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight For Civil Rights

Alfre Woodard on Whitney Young and The Powerbroker

Actress Alfre Woodard narrated the upcoming INDEPENDENT LENS film, "The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights." In this short interview, she discusses the pivotal role played by the civil rights movement’s inside man as he navigated a society divided by war, race, and poverty.

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