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October 01, 2013

New Documentary Looks at Unsung Hero of US Civil Rights Movement

by Mike O'Sullivan

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a turning point in the American Civil Rights movement.  Commemorations have frequently recalled the words of Martin Luther King, who demanded equality for all Americans, but a documentary film called The Powerbroker is looking at Whitney Young, another leader who worked quietly in the background. 
 
Civil rights organizations, including the Los Angeles Urban League, help job hunters find work and provide training for unemployed workers. A typical case is someone like Shauna Shappell, who went to nail school, became certified and plans to open her own business.
 
Fifty years ago, African-Americans had mostly menial jobs and little chance of advancement.
 
Bonnie Boswell's uncle, Whitney Young, helped break down barriers. He led the National Urban League, working behind the scenes with corporate and government leaders to expand opportunities for all Americans. 
 
Boswell, who is a journalist and filmmaker, has told her uncle's story in her film.
 
“He was coming at this from the standpoint of, yes, it's okay to change laws, but you have to be able to help people have jobs in order to have true equality.  You have to be able to give them an education that will allow them to have a job.  You have to be able to give them housing and health and services that will enable them to truly be participants in society,” explained Boswell.
 
In the 1950s and '60s, many activists helped tear down barriers, slowly at first.  Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play major league baseball, something Whitney Young talked about.
 
“He would tell people, we need some Jackie Robinsons in business.  But he also said, we need the Branch Rickeys.  Branch Rickey was the manager who opened up the door to Jackie Robinson,” said Boswell.
 
Young was there in 1963 at the March on Washington, and watched as Martin Luther King mesmerized the country.
 
“Today, I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world.  We're on the move and no wave of racism can stop us,” said King at the march.
 
Bonnie Boswell says that Whitney Young had his greatest impact in the corporate board room and working with a succession of American presidents.
 
“The years that he was head of the National Urban League from 1961 to 1971 were during, first of all, the Kennedy administration, then the Johnson administration, and finally the Nixon administration and he had to develop relationships with all three,” recalled Boswell.
 
The legal barriers to equality have come down, but Nolan Rollins of the Los Angeles Urban League says African-Americans have high rates of unemployment and too often work in low-wage jobs -- even as a poor economy recovers.
 
“I think that we've got to be really honest about where we are.  Yes, the economy is getting better, but it's not getting better for everyone at the same rate, and that's important,” said Rollins/
 
Martin Luther King helped bring political gains toward equality for all Americans, yet experts such as Rollins say good jobs are still needed in the inner city. Bonnie Boswell says that's what Whitney Young spent his life working for.