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Andrew Young Still an Ambassador for Social Justice


854 Americans have served in the United States House of Representatives since that body first began its work in 1789. 101 of them have been African-American. Andrew Young is one of them, and "Congressman" is just one of the many titles he has earned.

He was born in the segregated city of New Orleans, Louisiana, in March 1932. The racial hierarchy in Andrew Young's hometown was more complex than it was in other parts of the South, because there was a great deal of racial mixing in Louisiana in the 18th century, before the territory became a part of the United States.

Young's family bore the mark of that racial mixing from long ago, and he says some of his more light-skinned relatives mistakenly subscribed to the notion that "whiter" was better. "New Orleans was a Creole [or 'racially mixed'] town," he says. "My family was divided between what you'd call 'black/brown' and 'Creole.' And the thing that bothered me most was my Creole aunts saying to me, 'Oh, you're a nice-looking boy, if your hair just wasn't so nappy.'"

For Andrew Young, racism is a psychological sickness that victimizes blacks and whites in different ways. He says the civil rights movement he ultimately became a part of was the first step toward a national cure.

As a minister in Alabama in the 1950s, he worked to get African Americans registered to vote. In the 1960s, after he moved to Atlanta, Georgia, he became executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Together with Martin Luther King, Jr., he organized dozens of protests that used non-violent resistance to draw the world's attention to the problem of institutional racism in the American South.

"We did not want to destroy America, we wanted to change America," Young notes. "[The black abolitionist] Frederick Douglass, at the time of the Civil War, said, 'The struggle for freedom is a struggle to save black men's bodies and white men's souls.' And we saw how racism and segregation were destroying most people. And we realized it had to change. It was keeping the whole South down."

Thanks to the efforts of men like Andrew Young, laws that kept whites and blacks separate -- and defined blacks as inherently inferior -- were repealed. Although he says America still has a problem with racism, Young is proud of the fact that scenes you never would have seen in the South 50 years ago are now commonplace: black and white children sitting next to each other in classrooms, black and white men sharing meals at lunch counters, elderly black women turning out to vote.

"We were not trying to move a pebble or a rock. We were trying to move the most powerful nation on the face of the earth," Young says. "And that was never going to be done immediately. We could change it in a matter of a decade. And we did."

Andrew Young helped draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or gender. He also helped create the Voter's Rights Act of 1965, which removed the hurdles many southern states had set up to keep blacks from voting.

In 1972, Young became Georgia's first black congressman in almost a century. Four years later, President Jimmy Carter appointed him United States Ambassador to the United Nations, where he generated controversy by meeting with leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which the Carter Administration considered a terrorist group.

From 1981 to 1989, Andrew Young was mayor of Atlanta, a city he still lives and works in today. At the age of 73, he is co-chair of Goodworks International, a consulting firm that encourages economic development in Africa and the Caribbean.

As he looks back on America's history - and the role he played in it - Young says he feels no anger toward the whites who resisted his march toward justice. "[The] only people who ever made me mad were my mother, my wife, and my son," he says with a smile. And what of his three daughters? "No, my daughters are perfect," he laughs. "My son, unfortunately, is like me."

Andrew Young says no one should ever feel anger toward a racist, because you do not get angry at people who are sick. You help them.