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An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America

de Andrew Young

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1933133,922 (4.4)32
Andrew Young is one of the most important figures of the U.S. civil rights movement and one of America's best-known African American leaders. Working closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he endured beatings and arrests while participating in seminal civil rights campaigns. In 1964, he became Executive Director of the SCLC, serving with King during a time of great accomplishment and turmoil. In describing his life through his election to Congress in 1972, this memoir provides revelatory, riveting reading. Young's analysis of the connection between racism, poverty, and a militarized economy will resonate with particular relevance for readers today.… (mais)

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Andrew Young's memoir of his life and, most importantly, his experiences working alongside Martin Luther King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is extremely detailed and, at 531 pages, takes a while to get through. However, the journey is very much worthwhile for anyone interested in reading a comprehensive history of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Young's description of his childhood as the son of a middle-class African American family in New Orleans, I found slow going, but it lays the groundwork for understanding the adult Young became. Young's father assumed, and greatly desired, that young Andrew would follow him into the family profession: dentistry. But Young found himself with a calling for the religious life and eventually took control of his own life and became a Congregationalist minister. Young was also strongly drawn to working for social change, and within a few years finds himself involved in voter registration and anti-segregation campaigns in the Deep South. His skill for organizing, his deep commitment to the Ghandian philosophy of non-violence and his ability to communicate with college- and high school-aged would-be marchers afford him some early organizational successes. Attached to SCLC to work on a specific project, Young is soon being given more and more responsibility within the organization, eventually rising to the position of Executive Director.

All of that is interesting, but what is truly fascinating is Young's blow by blow account of Martin Luther King's growing prominence and the SCLC's growing importance on the national stage. Young recounts in detail each individual campaign organized and carried out by the SCLC, either on their own or (most frequently) in tandem with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The campaigns for integration of public spaces and voting rights in towns like Albany, Georgia, Montgomery, Alabama and Selma, Alabama are described fully. Young emphasizes the huge amount of planning and preparation that went into each effort. Clear and attainable goals were mapped out for each, and prospective marchers and picketers were given weeks-long training on nonviolent strategies. I found these day-by-day and often hour-by-hour descriptions of the events and personalities involved in these momentous events to be very compelling. In addition, as Young was on the scene for these campaigns, he is able to convey extremely well the sense of fear, frustration and exhilaration he experienced, and we almost feel the blows during the protest at which Young took several billy club blows to the head.

Young also describes to great effect

* The wrangling among the strong personalities and egos at the upper echelons of the SCLC.

* The fraying of the relationship between the SCLC and SNCC as the latter turned from its nonviolent, direction-action beginnings in the Deep South to the more polarized and angry rhetoric of the newer, more politicized leaders. To the end, and even as the SNCC leaders began criticizing SCLC leaders as out of touch and accommodationists, King was admonishing Young to remember that even if the two groups' rhetoric and strategies was diverging, their goals were the same, and the the energy and fire of the radicalized SNCC leaders was still needed. Young, though, in retrospect describes the "Black Power" philosophy as in the end futile, because, he says, the group's goal were never adequately defined or articulated and so the likelihood of their accomplishing anything concrete was very slim.

* The slow, hard-fought legislative victories of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, victories that Young describes as important but incomplete because the Johnson Administration, as hard as they'd worked for the bills' passage, refused to send federal marshals south to ensure compliance.

* The frustrations the group experienced when they tried to create direct action programs in northern inner cities, starting with Chicago, because the goals at that point shifted from relatively straightforward ideas like ending segregation and attaining the right to vote to working to eradicate the more deep seated problems of poverty itself and the federal policies that had created the inner city ghettoes:

"In the Chicago campaign, we learned that slums existed in part because they were profitable. Efforts to help poor blacks came into direct conflict with the financial interests of many politacally connected whites. This was in contrast to our experience with demonstrations against segregation in the South, where the local economic power structure usually eventually came around to our side. . . . The {Southern} private sector supported us because we made them realize through our boycotts that they couldn't afford to sacrifice the patronage of the black community and because they quickly realized, to their surprise, that integration brought them even more business. The integration of public facilities in the South didn't cost the economic power structure anything; in fact, integration was a boon to businesses through the South.

However, once we moved North and began to target the deeper, more entrenched problems of poor urban blacks, the private sector turned against us. Now their interest was in favor of maintaining the status quo. Cosmetic or token changes were fine, but not fundamental changes that in the long run would provide a more suitable and healthy society. The nature of the changes we were now seeking would have required a major redetribution of wealth. This, of course, was a very threatening situation. Now we were the problem."

* The outrage when, recognizing the interconnectivity of racism, poverty and war, King "stepped out of his lane" to forcefully condemn the Vietnam War. This included Lyndon Johnson turning against King and the SCLC in a major way.

* The grief and rage of the King assassination, as Young takes us through the preceding days and hours and then the harrowing, sorrow filled aftermath. Young also describes the assassination of Robert Kennedy as more or less the final nail in the coffin of the Civil Rights Movement as America had come to know it. The depression and cynicism the two killings created within the black community made it impossible to launch an effective get out the vote campaign in support of Hubert Humphrey (as they'd been able to do to help LBJ defeat Barry Goldwater in 1964). As a senator, Humphrey had been a courageous advocate for Civil Rights as far back as the 1950s. But as Johnson's Vice President, he was tainted by Johnson's war policies, and at any rate the black populace was exhausted. The result was Nixon's victory, and the backlash was on.

Well, I've gone on at length as usual, and yet only provided a short list of the issues described in An Easy Burden. But it's hard to do justice to this deep well of a memoir without descriptions of the many important themes that Young illuminates. Young was in many ways the ultimate insider, though he was in some ways a constant outsider within SCLC. Most of the leaders were fiery Baptists preachers, used to top-down leadership, and, as Young points out, extremely patriarchal in experience and temperament. Even Coretta Scott King had to push herself into a leadership role after her husband's death. As a Congregationalist, Young says, his training was to take a more rational, thoughtful approach, and to be more holistic in his organizational approach. This sometime caused the others in SCLC leadership to refer to him as their "conservative" member, something Young admits to resenting. This book stands as an excellent counterpart to the histories I read earlier of SNCC and the Black Panther Party. Of course there are more "objective" historical overviews of the Civil Rights Movement and of the SCLC. They might provide different (or additional) facts and perspectives, but right now I'm finding it hard to imagine a more personal, immersive accounting of those times than this one. ( )
1 vote rocketjk | Mar 9, 2023 |
"I want young men and young women who are not alive today but who will come into this world, with new privileges and new opportunities, I want them to know and see that these new privileges and opportunities did not come without somebody suffering and sacrificing for them.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.


“In the profoundest of terms, my work with Martin gave my life a purpose and sustenance I could have hardly dreamed of when Jean and I left New York to return to the South in 1961. He left his mark on me, both in indelible memories and in the spiritual and practical lessons of our trials and triumphs. It is by the quality of those days that I have come to measure my own continuing journey.”

This book starts out simply as Andrew Young’s autobiography. As the book goes on, Young’s personal story takes a back seat to the autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement. The usual autobiographical stuff is here in the first half of the book: what home was like (his father ran his dental practice from home; his mother was a school teacher); what the neighborhood in New Orleans was like; what grade school and high school was like. Young writes in such minute detail about these experiences, especially the high behavioral and academic expectations, that I found it, at first, a little too self-absorbed – even for an autobiography! Why, I thought, do I need to know all of this? It's here he describes W.E. DuBois’ philosophy of “the talented tenth that his schools adopted and why learning how to behave “properly” in the white man’s world (especially in the South) was so important: “Very early I learned to handle police with caution and self-control. … the least little dispute could instantly explode into a police matter if a black person was assertive. Such explosions often ended in tragedy, for blacks were completely helpless before the whims and unlimited authority of the police….” Young’s middle class upbringing really turned out to serve him well when he found himself involved with the Civil Rights Movement: “Had I failed to come to terms with my identity as a middle-class black person, I would never have accomplished very much in the civil rights movement or won elective office. We could not have persuaded the white establishment to accept social change if we hadn’t first worked on persuading the black establishment. Middle-class blacks achieved within the system of segregation and were legitimately concerned about any changes that integration could bring.”

Young , having rebelled against his parents’ plans for him to become a dentist like his father, followed his calling into the ministry and became an ordained minister in the Congregationalist Church. Andrew’s eyes would be opened when he was sent to minister at a church in Thomasville, Georgia. While there, he saw what a negative impact segregation had. The system of segregation and racial oppression left many of the most educated and talented men in the small Southern towns with no choice but to do “… menial work when he might have been an outstanding scientist, mathematician, researcher, or poet. …. It was as if the most gifted young blacks were the ones who suffered the most. They were the ones who felt most keenly the denials of equal opportunity. The valedictorians who could not escape northward were the ones who committed suicide, either in one tragic moment, or slowly throughout their despairing years.” After a few very effective years in Thomasville as a minister/community organizer, Young was offered the position of associate director for the Youth Department in the National Council of Churches in New York. He reluctantly left his congregation in Thomasville and settled in New York. He liked his life in New York but when Young, his family, and a few friends watched “The Nashville Sit-In Story,” the story of how four students “… decided to simply to sit at a Woolworth’s lunch counter” and sit-ins had snowballed from there, Young and his wife knew the time had come for them to go home to the South and work in the movement. One of his connections at the National Council of Churches in Christ asked Young to support the Highlander Folks School in Tennessee. Young was very enthusiastic about the Highlander School and, after a visit there, wrote a letter to Martin Luther King “… to tell him I wished to work in the South with the movement, and ask his advice as to where I might best fit in….. “ Young found himself fielding two job offers soon after: one to join the Highlander staff full time, and another from Martin Luther King “… to come to Atlanta and work for his newly created Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” For quite a few reasons Young declined King’s offer. He didn’t feel qualified; he wanted to work with young people; he knew SCLC would take up all of his time and he wanted to write about the movement: “to … have the opportunity to record it as it was unfolding. I knew that working directly with SCLC would demand all of my time and energy, leaving none left for writing.” So, Young decided to move to Tennessee and work at the Highlander Folk School. Everything seemed to be going according to plan. And then the school, due to some legal problems, was closed. “My proposal that the UCC board sponsor the citizenship programs* was approved: the Field Foundation agreed to the new arrangement, and it was also decided that the program would relocate itself administratively to the offices of Martin King’s SCLC in Atlanta. So, despite my best efforts to avoid it, I found myself led by the Spirit to Atlanta to work with the famous civil rights leader. …”

It’s here that Young’s own life story seems to dissolve into the pages and the book becomes less Young’s autobiography and more a unique eye-witness account of the Movement as a whole. He does a great job of painting the big picture by putting the Civil Rights Movement in its historical and political context while at the same time creating a great fly-on-the-wall perspective at what was going on in at Atlanta at the SCLC offices. SCLC did not work alone; there were a lot of organizations working across the country in the fight for Civil Rights. As Martin Luther King’s charisma attracted more and more national attention, these organizations were clamoring for MLK to come and help them. Having Martin Luther King speak at your rally, march, etc., was one sure way to lend credibility and draw national media attention. A tremendous amount of work was going on behind the scenes everywhere. The non-violent style of protest, modeled on Gandhi’s non-violent movement in India, was something that required painstaking planning and training. Demonstrations and demonstrators did not just happen: people needed to be trained, logistics needed to be worked out and people needed to be informed of and prepared for the consequences. “The non-violent approach is not emotional, although it is deeply spiritual. It is a rational process that seeks to transform, rather than defeat, the oppressor and the oppressive situation. Any kind of emotional outburst – violence, arrogance, intentional martyrdom – endangers the process of transformation. Emotionalism confirms the prejudices of those that nonviolence aims to transform.” If even one of the demonstrators would react violently when provoked, it could lead to disastrous consequences for the group – and the Movement.

Young also writes about the dynamics of the staff at the SCLC offices in Atlanta. King surrounded himself with men who he knew would have polarizing points of view and Young, with his incredible capacity for tact, diplomacy and negotiation skills, seemed to naturally fall into the role of mediator. While everyone shared the same common goal, there were staunch disagreements on how to achieve those goals. King’s approach was to simply listen to both sides of the argument and make his decision from there. It was Andrew Young who usually facilitated and refereed these debates. Young may not have always been happy about it, but King needed him to fill that role and he did. Despite the ego clashes, arguments, etc., King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference proved to be a united front. They all had two things in common: the love and respect for MLK himself and the goals of the Movement.

By the mid-60s, the Civil Rights Movement achieved some of its major goals: President Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Act. Near the end of the decade, SCLC started waging its own war on “War and Poverty.” While things were getting “better” in the South in regards to segregation, people in the ostensibly desegregated North were still facing issues of poverty and racial oppression. The Vietnam War was dividing the country and Martin Luther King took a bold stance against the war. President Johnson was dismayed (to say the least) that MLK would somehow turn on him after he had signed the sweeping Civil Rights Act and Voting Act. It was no secret to the staff of SCLC that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was watching their every move, but the activity seemed to ramp up once King came out against the unpopular war. Young asserts his chillingly plausible theory that King wasn’t assassinated because of his fight for racial equality but for his stance against poverty and the Vietnam War. King asserted that money spent on the war could be spent at home on domestic programs to alleviate the plight of the poor. At the time of his murder, King and his SCLC staff were planning the “Poor People’s Campaign,” “… demonstrators would live in Washington in temporary housing we would construct and begin the petitioning of government agencies and Congress for what was, in effect, an economic Bill of Rights.” There was some debate, after the loss of their leader, whether or not to go on with the Campaign but the group felt “… compelled to go ahead with the Poor People’s Campaign in the late spring of 1968, though what we really needed was a long break ….. This was not the time to rest …. We believed that the ulterior motive behind Martin’s murder was the cancellation of the campaign.” Before King’s death, there seemed to be little support for the PPC, but after King’s death, the “Campaign got completely out of hand…. We were deluged with more volunteers than we could handle…. People were pledging to come to Washington, people we hadn’t trained, didn’t really know, and couldn’t necessarily control.” The Campaign was not the success the SCLC was hoping for. “We had to salvage an end to the Poor People’s Campaign and get out of Washington with some degree of dignity.” Only two months after Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy, who, along with his staff, supported the Poor People’s Campaign “… when most national politicians were denouncing us and some black leaders avoided us as if we were a contagious disease” was assassinated. Robert Kennedy’s death proved to be just too much to deal with. “We were all trying to pretend that Martin’s death had not devastated us, but it had. And with the compounding shock and grief of Robert Kennedy’s murder, I couldn’t even pretend anymore.”

Young, of course, bounced back and he ends his memoir with the election of Nixon and his own runs for Congress in the early 70s. Nixon’s election was a devastating blow. “… Humphrey’s razor-thin loss to Richard Nixon meant that we would have to struggle just to hold on to the gains that had been achieved.” Young was asked to run for Congress in the early 70s. His first run was unsuccessful but the second time he won making him “… the first black person to be elected to Congress from Georgia since Reconstruction.” Young went on to be named U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations by Pres. Jimmy Carter ; was elected as mayor of Atlanta twice and co-chaired the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games in the 90’s.

“I am considerably older than I was in 1961, and I hope I’m wiser and certainly much more experienced after having moved through the Congress, the United Nations, the city of Atlanta, and the private sector. I have yet to find a reason to question or doubt the faith that we had in America then. Everything I know now convinces me that the struggle to eliminate racism, war, and poverty is a burden, but in America, with all the freedom and opportunity afforded us under our Constitution, in the most productive society in human history, it is an easy burden if we undertake it together.”
( )
4 vote avidmom | Mar 15, 2014 |
4579. An Easy Burden The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, by Andrew Young (read 3 Jun 2009) This is an autobiography with concentrated attention to Young's years with King. The account of Young before he became associated with King is of much interest, and is a neat picture of black middle class life. The account of the time from 1961 to 1969 somewhat duplicates Taylor Branch's trilogy, and so did not rivet my attention so much. But the account from the inside of the civil rights movement itself is of interest. He spends little time on his career after he was elected to Congress in 1972, which I wish he had told more about. ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | Jun 3, 2009 |
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Andrew Young is one of the most important figures of the U.S. civil rights movement and one of America's best-known African American leaders. Working closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he endured beatings and arrests while participating in seminal civil rights campaigns. In 1964, he became Executive Director of the SCLC, serving with King during a time of great accomplishment and turmoil. In describing his life through his election to Congress in 1972, this memoir provides revelatory, riveting reading. Young's analysis of the connection between racism, poverty, and a militarized economy will resonate with particular relevance for readers today.

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