Andrew Young, the civil rights activist who served as mayor of Atlanta and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, received the Lifetime of Leadership Award at the Chief Executive Leadership Institute’s CEO Summit on December 13. What follows is an edited transcript of his remarks.
Believe it or not, I almost have more faith in business than I have in the church, the politics, almost anything else I do. And the reason is that there’s more freedom and there’s more courage in our free enterprise system. There’s a capacity to rise from all kinds of need, and to imagine and to create glory in the midst of darkness and clouds. And I have some idea about the amount of time you spend awake at night, anxious, because I’m doing the same sort of thing, except that I got the other end of the free enterprise.
My enterprise has to be free, because way back, my parents and friends all along the way have said, “You’re blessed, and you owe the world your life. To those to whom much has been given, of them is much required. And you’ve been blessed.”
It was a segregated society. But I found that that segregation made it absolutely necessary for me to stay cool. My daddy used to say, “Don’t get mad, get smart. If you lose your temper in a fight, you’re gonna lose the fight. You’re little.” He was 5'4''. He said, “You probably won’t get more than 5'6'' or 7'', so you won’t be able to beat up anybody. And you can outrun a lot of people, but you won’t feel good about running from trouble.” And he said, “The only way you can survive is to use your mind, and to use your mind you have to keep it from getting clouded with blood. When you get angry, blood rushes to your head, and it cuts off your thought processes and you’re bound to do something stupid that you’ll regret.”
Having to learn that before kindergarten, I was very well prepared. When I went to Thomasville in Beachton, Georgia, to run a voter registration drive in 1954, and the Klan came out and wanted to stop us, I thought that I could scheme up on some way to deal with them. But, long story short, I ended up going to the mayor, and the mayor ended up calling Sunnyland Packing Company and Flowers Bakery on the phone. They decided there that the Klan had the right to march, had the right to meet on the courthouse steps, but they didn’t have the right to go in our neighborhoods and intimidate us. That’s when I realized where the power in our society is. It’s in the hands of the employers, the job creators.
And so when I went to Birmingham with Martin Luther King, he said, “I don’t want you to go to jail. You find some white folks that you can talk to, and see if you can help them to understand why we have to desegregate this city.” Well, it wasn’t that hard to go to the Episcopal bishop and have him pick up the phone and call two or three friends. While people were marching, we would go sit down and get cussed out and blamed by everything that’s going on. We did this day in and day out for about 90 days. But that was also 90 days when nobody in the black community and many people in the white community were not shopping. So when business slowed down, people decided that they could come together. And so 100 businessmen in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, agreed to desegregate the entire city in spite of George Wallace, in spite of the laws of segregation, and nobody ever challenged it. We desegregated Birmingham without an incident over a year before the Congress was able to come up with the civil rights bill.
Around the world, almost wherever you go to find a market, you find a need. Needs are there until markets meet those needs. And when markets meet those needs efficiently, you got profit and you’ve got jobs. When the Lord asks you on Judgment Day, “Did you feed the hungry? Did you clothe the naked? Did you heal the sick? Did you set at liberty those who were oppressed?” All of you who run successful businesses meet millions of payrolls every month. You see to it that people do have healthcare, they are housed, that this world is so much a better place because people run the risk of business.
I have three daughters, all of whom are successful. A lawyer, a teacher, and one who used to be an engineer with IBM, until the children got too big and she came back to Atlanta. Then I have a son, who said, “Daddy, there’s nobody in this family that’s ever made any money.” He said, “You spent a million dollars on education and everybody, including you, is broke. I don’t want to waste my time and your money. Somebody’s got to get out here and figure out how to run a business, how to create jobs.” His mother had just died, and I said, “Your mother was a teacher. Surely she would want you to go to college.” He said, “She never asked me.” And I said, “Well, I trust you. It’s your life.”
My daddy wanted me to be a dentist, and I was a failure. Even when I became an ambassador to the United Nations and Thurgood Marshall said, “You must be really proud of this boy,” he said, “If he’d have been a dentist, he’d have been somebody.”
And so I won’t put that blame on my children, but it’s wonderful to see four children grow up, now with nine grandchildren. Tomorrow, my first great-grandchild will be born in Washington, so I’ve had a blessed life. But it’s interesting. My son married a Venezuelan, so one of my grandchildren says, “I’m half-Venezuelan.” And he goes around at six years old talking to all of the Spanish workers and carrying on conversations like he’s a grown man. And then the baby born, to be born tomorrow, will take my family back to Nigeria. My granddaughter married a Nigerian.
But whether we like it or not, our families are reaching out into the world, and they are going to live lives that we are preparing now. And so we’re not preparing lives and blessings for ourselves, but the jobs that you do and the innovation that you share, and the confidence and courage with which you take on the problems of the world is making this world a much better place.