Behind any prominent hero, there are also countless heroes who influenced history in the background. Not much is said about these heroes. Their lives are rarely studied in high school history classes. Very few schools and streets are named after them. We don’t get a day off in recognition of their birthdays. Only a history buff would know of their significance.
Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there were leaders like Reverend Ralph David Abernathy and Fannie Lou Hamer who fought for racial equality. Before Thurgood Marshall became the first Black United States Supreme Court Justice, he was mentored by Charles Hamilton Houston who successfully challenged the Jim Crow laws to the point that he earned the title as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.” Other unknown advocates and legal scholars during the Civil Rights era include William Hastie, Oliver Hill, and Aloyisus Leon Higginbotham, Jr. Unfortunately, these names along with countless others who have fought for the rights we have today are unfamiliar to many.
I had the pleasure to watch a documentary on the life of another unknown hero Whitney Young. Titled The Powerbroker the documentary covered Young’s noteworthy contributions in the fight for equal rights for all. Young was the Executive Director of the National Urban League from 1961 to 1971. During his tenure as Executive Director, Young urged white business leaders to hire Black employees for the type of positions that are stepping stones to executive positions. In doing so, Young formed close relationships with top business leaders like Henry Ford II to advocate for an end to discriminatory practices in businesses.
In addition, he served as an advisor in race relations for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Prior to the “The Great March on Washington” in 1963, President Kennedy originally discouraged the march because he feared it would lead members of Congress to vote against proposed laws for Civil Rights. Young was able to calm President Kennedy’s nerves and persuaded Kennedy to support the march. This quiet act paved the way for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to share the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Another example is Young’s influence on President Johnson. In hopes to eradicate all inequalities among races, Young proposed a domestic Marshall Plan to provide $145 billion to welfare, education, job training and healthcare projects for predominantly minority communities. President Johnson was so impressed by Young’s plan that Johnson adopted some of Young’s policies for his “Great Society” project.
Young was known as a mediator between Civil Rights leaders and white leaders in business and politics to help both sides agree to effective changes to guarantee equal rights for all. The documentary’s website describes Young as “the man working behind the scenes, shaking the rights hands, making the right deals, and opening the doors of opportunity for all Americans.”
In Young’s own words, “Every man is our brother, and every man’s burden is our own. Where poverty exists, all are poorer. Where hate flourishes, all are corrupted. Where injustice reins, all are unequal.” The desire for everyone to live free from poverty, hate, and injustice is what drove Young to work tirelessly behind the scenes. He was a valuable advocate for equality who was able to get things done for the benefit of all. As President Nixon described Young, “[h]e knew how to accomplish what other people were merely for.” I hope more will learn of this hero in the background.