‘Independent Lens: The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights’

You are part of this society. It is not easy. I am not suggesting the easy road, but the time has come when no longer the kooks and crackpots speak for America. The decent people have to learn to speak up, and you shouldn’t have to be the victim to feel for other people. I make no pretense that it is easy.

Whitney Young, 1968

“The thing that my wife and I have tried to teach our children is the thing that my father so often told me, that we must not adopt the worst habits of white people, that any fool can hate. He said to me, ‘Whitney, you must never hate, because you only hate that that you fear. And I want you to fear no man.'” As Whitney Young speaks, you see a photo of young Whitney, dressed in a vested suit, with a cap tilted back on his head. He looks to be around six or seven years old, posing with a tree and a wooden fence behind him: his hands in his pockets, the camera pushing in his face as he gazes at the camera.

The image is striking, as is Young’s description of an ethos that is at once so practical and so principled, a view of the world as it is and also as it might be. This view, at once complex and rational, characterized Young’s work throughout his life, as a student at Kentucky State University, a soldier during World War II, and executive director of the National Urban League. And, as recounted in the documentary The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights, airing as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series on 18 January, this view at times left him “standing alone between two antagonistic worlds.”

Narrated by Alfre Woodard, Christine Khalafian and Taylor Hamilton’s film makes the case that for Whitney Young, “standing alone” was at once a challenge and an opportunity. And his work in the Civil Rights Movement was at once different from that of Martin Luther King, Jr. or the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins and also continuous. All understood the value of television and the limits they faced to: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. notes, “When [white viewers] saw innocent people beg shot and beaten, I think it disgusted people and they said, ‘Damn, I don’t want to live in a country like that.’ You know, ‘Let the spooks in.’ I don’t think anybody ever said, ‘I’m gonna share my wealth.'”

Just so, Young made the argument that a form of “sharing” would be good for business. He sought an “economic-based revolution,” as Gates puts it. To that end, he dressed a certain part: “I thought he was cool, articulate, smooth, and handsome, my man. I even liked the way he combed his hair,” Gates remembers, “His focus was more with corporate America.” It was a focus that drew criticism, as Young appeared to be cooperating with the forces most responsible for black oppression. But he persevered, asking that “the same conscious, deliberate effort which was used for years to exclude Negroes now be used to include Negroes in the mainstream of American life.”

Young was more right than anyone might have anticipated. For better and worse, the path to integration in the US — despite and because of persistent racism — has been premised on money. This isn’t to say that following this path is always fruitful or that it hasn’t perpetuated a system of inequalities and abuses, but it has been the ground for a kind of revolution, a way forward for black entrepreneurs and politicians. Indeed, as Young worked with the administrations headed by John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon, he negotiated changing circumstances and ambitions. His neatly combed hair and his quick wit helped him to engage with Kennedy to establish aggressive integration policies with Kennedy and Johnson (“Workplace diversity,” says John Hope Franklin, “now became a corporate value”) and also to cut a deal with Nixon to help fund the National Urban League, at a time when Nixon “(Public enemy number one” to the movement, according to the narration) was calling “riots” a consequence of previous administrations’ pro-Civil Rights efforts, and also supporting COINTELPRO, the FBI’s program designed to monitor and “disrupt” domestic organizations, at the time directed specifically against threats posed by new Black Power groups.

But in sitting down with the enemy, Young didn’t lose sight of the prize. The film makes this case repeatedly, not only in interviews with people who knew or admire him, but also with terrific footage of Young himself, speaking before various groups and for TV cameras. Though he died following a heart attack in 1971, these images help us to remember his brilliance, his insight, and his sublime wit.

Speaking at the Congress of Racial Equality, he says, “We started out believing that white America had more decency and more intelligence than probably it has,” as the men sitting alongside him laugh out loud. And when he’s asked by a journalist whether the Nixon administration was “anti-black,” he says, “No, I didn’t say it was anti-black. I said it was pro-political.” He’s speaking truth to power, certainly, but also cajoling that power, seeking ways to use it to change its longstanding dynamic and essential structure. “We got to be serious,” as he puts it, “We’ve got to take care of business.” Young’s work is unfinished, but The Powerbroker recalls how well he did it.

RATING 7 / 10