The civil rights and black power movements seem distant from Omaha until noting that Whitney Young Jr. cut his teeth as an advocate-organizer here and future activst Malcolm X was born here.
While Malcolm X moved with his family from Omaha as a child and only returned once as an adult, Young served as Urban League of Nebraska president from 1950 to 1953. Young faced racism first-hand growing up in the South and serving in the U.S. Army. In Omaha he found blacks severely restricted in terms of where they could live, work, eat and recreate. He worked with DePorres Club president Father John Markoe and Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown in mounting challenges to discrimination and segregation. He forged alliances with local business and civic leaders to try and improve opportunities for minorities.
Those mediating experiences undoubtedly informed his later work as National Urban League executive director from 1961 until his untimely death in 1971, a tenure that coincided with momentous civil rights events.
Young. who’s been called “the inside man of the black revolution,” is the subject of a new documentary produced by his niece, television journalist Bonnie Boswell. A free 7 p.m. screening of her PBS-telecast film, The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights, is set for March 28 at Film Streams. A Q&A with Boswell follows.
Boswell says she was motivated in part to do the project to ensure Young’s role in history got “the credit” it deserved because his contributions had become obscured over time. “The other reason I wanted to do the film,” she says, “is that I think it’s important to lift up people like Whitney Young, of whom there are many, who do work behind the scenes people don’t necessarily know about, who get things done, who make cities work. I think it’s important for future generations to have a sense of, as they start thinking about their lives, it’s not necessarily about getting your name in the newspaper or your picture on the front of some magazine but about being effective and getting a job done. I think we need to encourage people to take pride in that.”
The most enduring images from the struggle for self-determination remain the public protests, marches and speeches that pricked the heart and conscience of a nation divided by race. Beyond the raised fists and voices, however, was the largely unseen and unheard back room maneuvering of activists, lawyers, politicians, ministers and others. These social justice soldiers brokered most of the change that delivered equal rights protections to African Americans.
Young was perhaps the most significant inside player among this largely unheralded vanguard of freedom fighters. Trained as a social worker, he used his pragmatic problem-solving and people skills to gain access to corporate boardrooms and the White House to advance the case for equality as a good thing for America. Though famous in his time, his work was overshadowed by that of Martin Luther King Jr., who remains the enduring face of the movement.
Boswell says she fixed on doing the film after speaking at a Whitney Young health center in 2002 and reflecting on how her uncle’s diplomatic approach to facilitating compromise amid the tumultuous ’60s could be instructive for leaders negotiating our own ultra partisan, divisive times.
“I was concerned America was continuing to engage in overseas wars and the gap between rich and poor was widening, and I was like, Can’t we do better? Then as I studied the role he played as a mediator and a bridge-builder I thought, This is exactly the kind of person we need to have as a role model and more people need to know his story so he really can be that role model.”
What does she imagine Young would make of America today?
“I think he would be gratified and also disappointed. I think we’ve clearly made a lot of progress in many areas. We have a lot of work to do for true equity and we should be about continuing that job. I think he would want us to be picking up the baton that others left.”
Boswell says viewers would do well to remember that both MLK and Young challenged America to live up to its larger ideal of creating a better America.
“It went far beyond race, it was about the beloved community, the just society, our democracy, so we have to continue that work.”
The documentary is also extremely personal. Boswell’s early rearing came at the hands of her uncle’s and mother’s parents at the Lincoln Institute in Kentucky, where her grandfather was principal. She learned the same values her grandparents taught them. As a girl she adored her uncle but as a afro-wearing young woman caught up in Black Power fervor she favored the militancy of Stokely Carmichael to the diplomacy of Whitney Young. Her film makes clear the movement required many approaches to affect needed change.
As a middle-aged woman today, she says, “I certainly have come to appreciate Whitney’s role and the subtleties of things he was dealing with that I didn’t have the maturity to really understand. I was much more emotional about discrimination, period. He grew up in a time when you couldn’t afford to be so emotional and I didn’t understand that. I can definitely appreciate his legacy more today.”
The civil rights champion’s name adorns schools, organizations and empowerment programs around the nation. In Omaha the Urban League of Nebraska’s Whitney Young Jr. Academy offers life and career skills to youths.
Ticket reservations for the film screening-discussion are recommended. Call 402-933-0259 or visit www.filmstreams.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.