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Remembering an unsung hero of the March on Washington

Urban League Executive Director Whitney Young Jr., second from right, and other black leaders discuss civil rights with President Lyndon B. Johnson in his White House office on Jan. 18, 1964. The other black leaders, from left, are: Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); James Farmer, national director of the Committee on Racial Equality; and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.AP

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew him as a friend and eloquent strategist. Filmmaker Bonnie Boswell knew him as “Uncle Whitney.”

At 12, Boswell sat in awe as she watched her uncle, Whitney Young Jr., on television as he spoke at the podium during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.

“Whitney Young’s vision, his personal mission, was to help America live up to her ideals,” said Boswell. Young, former executive director of the National Urban League and arguably one of the most articulate and unsung voices of the civil rights movement, is the focus of Boswell’s recent documentary, "The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights."

Young helped raise the funding that made the 1963 march possible, Boswell said. Yet he had an approach unlike that of King or Malcolm X, she added, which is possibly why America has all but forgotten his broad contributions to the civil rights movement.

“He was not a guy who was going to stand on the street corner (and speak)," she said. "He decided to do the less visible thing … but the more effective thing in terms of employment.”

According to Boswell, Young had an ambition to achieve equal opportunity for all, and he never strayed from his principles, even when they led to blistering tensions between himself and Dr. King. In the hour-long documentary, Young is presented as prudent orator who worked diligently alongside corporate executives and elected officials to achieve opportunities in the workplace for African-Americans.

“The so-called war on poverty [was] largely brought into the consciousness by Whitney Young working in collaboration with [then-President] Lyndon Johnson,” said Boswell. “Things like Head Start, Job Corps, the whole range of programs.”

Boswell said her uncle was commended as a bridge-builder between the white and black communities. Paul Conrad, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of the Los Angeles Times, even illustrated an homage to his prowess.

“The best description of [Young] came from a cartoon by Conrad,” she said. “It had a picture of a bridge; one side being black, one side being white, and underneath it said, ‘Whitney Young: Bridge Builder.’”

“I think that was kind of the essence of his legacy,” Boswell added. “He was willing and able to construct the bridges. He built them and he walked over them.”

Boswell said that even though Young and King did not agree on every issue, they remained friends until King’s assassination.

“They had a disagreement over Vietnam, specifically and the strategy and the approach to Vietnam," she said, but their differing opinions about the war did not dissolve their appreciation for one another.

Young died during a casual swim in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1971. Although some conspiracies surround his death, it was officially ruled a heart attack.

More than 40 years later, Boswell remembers her uncle as an unsung hero and a man who changed the tide of the 20th century.

“When the African-American leadership pushed (the civil rights) agenda forward in 1963, the result of that was not just an improvement of conditions for African-Americans,” Boswell said. “There was a broad movement forward for the country in general.”

Boswell's documentary will air on Tuesday, Aug. 27, on PBS.

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