Whitney M. Young, Jr. (1921-1971)

Historical Marker #1419 in Shelby County commemorates Whitney M. Young, Jr., one of the primary personalities of the Civil Rights Movement.

Young was born in Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky (Shelby County), in 1921. His father was an educator, and later the president, at Lincoln Institute, an African American school. His mother was the first African American postmaster in Kentucky. Young was educated at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, and later earned his master's degree from the University of Minnesota in social work. During World War II, Young worked on a road crew for the U.S. military, where he honed his early diplomatic and leadership skills and was promoted to first sergeant.

After the war, and after earning his master's degree, Young started working for the National Urban League (NUL). He became the president of the Omaha, Nebraska, chapter in 1950. In 1961, Young became the Executive Director of the NUL, a position he held until his death in 1971. Young developed numerous strategies that changed the NUL from a relatively benign organization to one that became dynamic and outspoken during the Civil Rights Movement.

Young often partnered with the others of the "Big Four:" Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and James Farmer of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), to make drastic changes to the social and political environment of the United States. Young, like the others, pushed for voting rights, racial equality, and equal opportunity for all Americans. He once stated, "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."

Young was an important adviser to presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Nixon even tried to convince Young to take a cabinet position, but Young refused, believing that he would be of more service with the NUL. In 1969, President Johnson presented Young with the highest civilian award given, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Tragically, Young drowned while swimming with friends in Lagos, Nigeria, while attending a conference. President Nixon had Young's body flown back to the United States and the president delivered the eulogy at Young's funeral. In that message Nixon praised Young's work: 'What monument do we build to him? He leaves his own monument, not one, but thousands, thousands of men and women in his own race who have a chance, an equal chance, that they otherwise might never have had except for what he did; and thousands of others not of his own race who have an understanding in their hearts which they would not have had except for what he taught."