Andy Young: Congressman, ambassador, mayor, brother

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Ambassador Andrew Young talks with AJC's Ernie Suggs about Young's milestone birthday of 90. Video by Ryon Horne and Tyson Horne

Journalist Ernie Suggs reflects on 26 years covering a ‘giant’ of the civil rights movement.

The first time I heard about Andy Young was in 1977.

I just can’t remember if it was in The New York Times or on “Good Times.”

I was 10 years old at the time and living in the Bedford–Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

A year earlier, during the Bicentennial, I had accompanied my mother to P.S. 241, where I watched her cast her vote for Jimmy Carter for president of the United States. By proxy, and I have told the president this many times, I became an instant fan and admirer of the peanut farmer from Georgia who defied all odds to rise to lead this nation.

But at the time, I was also developing an interest in Black culture, looking for role models who looked like me. I was only 13 months old in 1968 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, so the people who worked around him were not significant to me as I was growing up.

My reference points were either major figures like King, Thurgood Marshall and George Washington Carver. Or contemporary figures like Henry Aaron, Jesse Jackson or any “first Blacks” that were beginning to happen.

So as a fan of President Carter, I became intrigued by the country’s first Black United Nations ambassador, Andrew Young. Even at a young age, I understood the significance of his position and the power he exuded as a Black man.

Unlike many others, my entry point into the life of Young was not as a civil rights leader, but as a statesman. Which made me even more impressed when I found out that earlier, he had been the first African American to represent Georgia in Congress since Reconstruction.

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Andrew Young didn't get a chance to finish his third term in Congress — another Georgian hired him away in 1977. That year, President Jimmy Carter appointed Young as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. In that role, Young crafted a policy toward African countries that stressed civil rights and economic development rather than Cold War realpolitik. In 1979, his time at the U.N. ended in diplomatic scandal after he met with a Palestine Liberation Organization representative. He resigned at Carter's request. (Carter would give Young a Presidential Medal of Freedom as one of his final acts in office.) (AJC file)

Credit: UPI

Andrew Young didn't get a chance to finish his third term in Congress — another Georgian hired him away in 1977. That year, President Jimmy Carter appointed Young as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. In that role, Young crafted a policy toward African countries that stressed civil rights and economic development rather than Cold War realpolitik. In 1979, his time at the U.N. ended in diplomatic scandal after he met with a Palestine Liberation Organization representative. He resigned at Carter's request. (Carter would give Young a Presidential Medal of Freedom as one of his final acts in office.) (AJC file)

Credit: UPI

Combined ShapeCaption
Andrew Young didn't get a chance to finish his third term in Congress — another Georgian hired him away in 1977. That year, President Jimmy Carter appointed Young as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. In that role, Young crafted a policy toward African countries that stressed civil rights and economic development rather than Cold War realpolitik. In 1979, his time at the U.N. ended in diplomatic scandal after he met with a Palestine Liberation Organization representative. He resigned at Carter's request. (Carter would give Young a Presidential Medal of Freedom as one of his final acts in office.) (AJC file)

Credit: UPI

Credit: UPI

But I was even more impressed, and I can’t believe I remember this, when he got a shout-out on a 1977 episode of my favorite television show, “Good Times.”

In the episode, the Evans family was debating the veracity of the abused young Penny’s account that her recent set of bruises was from a fall down the stairs.

Everyone is skeptical, except Thelma.

Thelma: “I mean, maybe Penny’s telling the truth.”

J.J.: “Yeah, and maybe Andrew Young is afraid to open his mouth.”

It got a huge laugh, but it also let me know that for everything Andrew Young had done, getting mentioned on “Good Times” was verification of how big a deal he was.

He still is. And at 90, Andrew Young still isn’t afraid to open his mouth.

That is why I titled my new book on Young, “The Many Lives of Andrew Young” (NewSouth Books, $60), which publishes March 29.

I wanted to reflect on just how diverse and varied each stage of his life has been. And when I think about it, each part of his New Orleans-born life — civil rights leader, congressman, former big-city mayor — could be a book unto itself.

In 1997, some 20 years after first discovering Young, I moved to Atlanta to cover Black issues and the Black community as a young reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Atlanta at the time was considered the mecca of Black America, with an unbroken string of black mayors dating back to the 1973 election of Maynard Jackson. It was becoming the hub of Black culture through fashion and this new form of music called hip-hop.

ExploreEXPLORE: Andrew Young quotes: Wisdom from his 90 years

I didn’t realize at the time, a lot of that was because of Andrew Young’s stewardship of the city as mayor in the 1980s, when he pushed for more international investments, expanded the airport and laid the groundwork for this Southern city to host the 1996 Olympics.

Most importantly to me, I wanted to move to Atlanta because it was the birthplace of the civil rights movement.

And in 1997, many of the legends — whom I have called “America’s second set of founders” — were still living here.

Imagine a city where Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Juanita Abernathy, James Orange, C. T. Vivian and the Rev. Joseph Lowery still roamed.

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One week after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, flanked by Joseph E. Lowery, left, and the Rev. Andrew Young, holds a news conference in Atlanta to address the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Abernathy presided as president of the SCLC from 1968-77. (AP file)

One week after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, flanked by Joseph E. Lowery, left, and the Rev. Andrew Young, holds a news conference in Atlanta to address the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Abernathy presided as president of the SCLC from 1968-77. (AP file)

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One week after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, flanked by Joseph E. Lowery, left, and the Rev. Andrew Young, holds a news conference in Atlanta to address the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Abernathy presided as president of the SCLC from 1968-77. (AP file)

Fair representation of the movement and Atlanta’s Black community in the media was of utmost importance to them. It is safe to assume they had known and worked with every Black reporter employed by the paper, starting with Harmon Perry, the AJC’s first Black reporter, who was hired in 1968.

Once I arrived, they were always around, always accessible, always inviting.

I still remember the first time meeting Mrs. King and how close I was to her. I interviewed her in the auditorium of the King Center. She sat in a row in front of me and comfortably leaned back in her seat to talk to me, occasionally touching my arm to emphasize her point. I miss bumping into the Rev. Orange at Pascal’s or the Busy Bee. The bookshelves I had built in my home are a blatant copy of C.T. Vivian’s library. And I still reflect on the time the Rev. Lowery officiated my wedding.

Andrew Young, the only one of those giants still roaming today, is no exception. He is a little tougher to reach because his hands are in so many things and the strange fact that he never answers his cell phone, and the voicemail is always full.

But when I get him, he is always willing to share a story, often a long one, while providing layers upon layers of context: unafraid to open his mouth, even when it gets him in trouble.

By my estimations, I have written more than 260 stories for the AJC in which Young was mentioned.

My first was about his walking out of the hospital following a prostate cancer operation in 1999.

My latest, about his sheer joy of witnessing the Atlanta Braves win the 2021 World Series.

In between, I have written about him at his best and his worst. He never complained and simply moved along, eager to talk the next time I needed him.

The first time I actually met Andrew Young, was in 1996 at a tiny Black bookstore on Fayetteville Street in Durham, North Carolina, about three blocks from the campus of North Carolina Central University.

I was an even younger reporter then, working for the Durham Herald-Sun, and I was assigned to cover a lecture he was giving about his then-new autobiography, “An Easy Burden.”

I was serious enough as a reporter to understand the weight of the assignment and how important he was. But I was not that far removed from my college days to realize that this was a chance to meet a real brother.

You see, Andrew Young is also my fraternity brother in Alpha Phi Alpha. He became a member in 1950 at Howard University, and I followed in 1989 at NCCU.

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A group portrait of Andrew Young and his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers at Howard University circa 1950. Young (7th from right) became a member of the country's oldest Black fraternity in 1950. His dean of pledges was future New York City Mayor David Dinkins (first on left). From the book “The Many Lives of Andrew Young.” Copyright © 2022 by Ernie Suggs. Reprinted by permission of NewSouth Books. (Andrew Young Personal Collection)

Credit: Andrew Young Personal Collection

A group portrait of Andrew Young and his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers at Howard University circa 1950. Young (7th from right) became a member of the country's oldest Black fraternity in 1950. His dean of pledges was future New York City Mayor David Dinkins (first on left). From the book “The Many Lives of Andrew Young.” Copyright © 2022 by Ernie Suggs. Reprinted by permission of NewSouth Books. (Andrew Young Personal Collection)

Credit: Andrew Young Personal Collection

Combined ShapeCaption
A group portrait of Andrew Young and his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers at Howard University circa 1950. Young (7th from right) became a member of the country's oldest Black fraternity in 1950. His dean of pledges was future New York City Mayor David Dinkins (first on left). From the book “The Many Lives of Andrew Young.” Copyright © 2022 by Ernie Suggs. Reprinted by permission of NewSouth Books. (Andrew Young Personal Collection)

Credit: Andrew Young Personal Collection

Credit: Andrew Young Personal Collection

Understanding the significance and importance of that comes with an understanding of Black culture as it relates to higher education and, to an extension, class.

Our fraternity was founded in 1906 on the campus of Cornell University, an elite Ivy League school in upstate New York. The seven students — Jewels, as we call them — who founded the fraternity did so in part as a form of protection and to build a semblance of community in an otherwise white existence.

Ask any brother about the fraternity and they will be quick to tell you that our illustrious brotherhood includes the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois and Thurgood Marshall.

So while getting to meet Young was cool, getting to meet one of my fraternity’s legends was even cooler.

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Ambassador Andrew Young talks with AJC's Ernie Suggs about Young's milestone birthday of 90. Video by Ryon Horne and Tyson Horne

After his lecture and my interview, I walked him and his entourage to his car. I had not mentioned that I was a brother, but on our walk, I took the opportunity to challenge him.

A secret and subtle challenge is our way of proving that we are a brother, while verifying that the other man is a brother. But for a person like me challenging Andrew Young, it is more of a symbolic sign of deep respect. Not for me to have him prove that he is a brother, but to humbly let him know that I was legit and worthy of wearing those letters.

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Author and Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Ernie Suggs and Ambassador Andrew Young flash the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity sign while holding a copy of the new book, "The Many Lives of Andrew Young." (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

Author and Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Ernie Suggs and Ambassador Andrew Young flash the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity sign while holding a copy of the new book, "The Many Lives of Andrew Young." (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

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Author and Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Ernie Suggs and Ambassador Andrew Young flash the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity sign while holding a copy of the new book, "The Many Lives of Andrew Young." (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

Credit: Tyson Horne

When I threw out the challenge, he paused for a moment. He looked at me up and down, smiled, and answered.

He reached out his hand, not to shake it in the traditional way, but to share the secret handshake that men in our fraternity have closely guarded since 1906.

“My brother,” he said as he got into his chauffeur-driven limousine.

I tell that story in the author’s note in “The Many Lives of Andrew Young,” not to draw attention to myself or our relationship, but to further provide an example of just how diverse he is.

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Courtesy of NewSouth Books

Credit: NewSouth Books

Courtesy of NewSouth Books

Credit: NewSouth Books

Combined ShapeCaption
Courtesy of NewSouth Books

Credit: NewSouth Books

Credit: NewSouth Books

Over the years, I have carefully watched how people address Andrew Young.

The AJC’s standard practice is to refer to him on first reference as “ambassador.”

James Orange called him “my leader,” while C.T. Vivian called him “doctor.” But they called everyone that.

“Andy” is preferred by those who know him casually. But he sometimes gets “congressman.” Or “mayor.” Or “reverend.”

There is a group of folks, around the ages of his daughters, who call him “Uncle Andy,” because he is almost like a family figure.

I chose to call him brother.

My Brother, Andrew Young.