Andrew Young looks back at 90 years, and smiles, mostly

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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

In a visit to Atlanta in 1951, new college graduate Andrew Young slowed his car when he saw a rat crossing Ponce de Leon Avenue late one night.

Born in the Deep South’s New Orleans and educated in Washington, D.C., at Howard University, Young was extra cautious. About six years earlier at a conference at the Butler Street YMCA he watched the Ku Klux Klan march down Auburn Avenue — the heart of Black Atlanta.

“I figured the rats had more rights than Black folks in Georgia,” he said.

That may be one of the few times that Young, who turns 90 on Saturday, has slowed down in Atlanta. He moved here in 1961.

More than 70 years later he hops into his tricked-out minivan and tours a Georgia and an Atlanta that are different because of his work.

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A portrait of Andrew Young in his home. The former civil rights icon, mayor of Atlanta, congressman and U.N. Ambassador, turns 90 March 12. Young will celebrate his birthday with a host of events around the city, and the release of a new book, "The Many Lives of Andrew Young."(Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

A portrait of Andrew Young in his home. The former civil rights icon, mayor of Atlanta, congressman and U.N. Ambassador, turns 90 March 12. Young will celebrate his birthday with a host of events around the city, and the release of a new book, "The Many Lives of Andrew Young."(Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

Combined ShapeCaption
A portrait of Andrew Young in his home. The former civil rights icon, mayor of Atlanta, congressman and U.N. Ambassador, turns 90 March 12. Young will celebrate his birthday with a host of events around the city, and the release of a new book, "The Many Lives of Andrew Young."(Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

Credit: Tyson Horne

As the city’s mayor from 1982 until 1990 — the second Black person to hold the job — Young expanded the airport, opened up or expanded roads such as John Lewis Freedom Parkway, and attracted new companies and billions of dollars worth of investments while convincing the world that the city that once greeted him with a rat could host the Olympic Games.

Early family lessons gave him a gift for creating change.

“I grew up with the motto — my daddy started slapping it into me when I was four years old — don’t get mad, get smart,” Young said. “When you get angry in a fight, the blood rushes from your head to your fist to your feet, and you’re liable to do something stupid. Use your head. That’s the most powerful vehicle you have for solving problems.”

It is a methodology Young imbued into the city, negotiating shrewdly with the white power structure as an activist during the civil rights movement to sell a better vision and to move things ahead as peacefully as possible. When he was mayor, he operated the same way when solving problems. On Thursday, at an unveiling ceremony of a statue in his likeness, he called that strategy “The Atlanta Way.”

Young points to the slogan, “A city too busy to hate,” and said it reflects his father’s lessons.

“It is…the same thing. Don’t get mad, get smart.”

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Andrew Young during his years in college. From the book “The Many Lives of Andrew Young.” Copyright © 2022 by Ernie Suggs. Reprinted by permission of NewSouth Books. (Daisy Fuller Collection, Amistad Research Center at Tulane University)

Credit: Daisy Fuller Collection

Andrew Young during his years in college. From the book “The Many Lives of Andrew Young.” Copyright © 2022 by Ernie Suggs. Reprinted by permission of NewSouth Books. (Daisy Fuller Collection, Amistad Research Center at Tulane University)

Credit: Daisy Fuller Collection

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Andrew Young during his years in college. From the book “The Many Lives of Andrew Young.” Copyright © 2022 by Ernie Suggs. Reprinted by permission of NewSouth Books. (Daisy Fuller Collection, Amistad Research Center at Tulane University)

Credit: Daisy Fuller Collection

Credit: Daisy Fuller Collection

Young’s oldest daughter, Andrea Young, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, said when her father sees the growth here “he is proud of what Atlanta has become and his role in it.”

Before Thursday’s statue unveiling at Rodney Cook Sr. Park, Andrea Young, most of the Young family and more than 1,000 Atlantans marched with Young from Centennial Olympic Park to the new park for the ceremony.

“He transformed Atlanta forever,” Andrea Young said. “Atlanta is not the city it is, without his vision.”

From his van, Young pointed to the blue dome atop downtown’s Hyatt Regency. Once one of the tallest structures in town, with panoramic views of the region, it is now hidden behind soaring business towers and new construction.

The van heads down Andrew Young International Boulevard, one of at least a half dozen structures or institutions named for him in the city.

“I think maybe I have to confess that that’s my sin. My sin is pride in the city,” Young said. “It wasn’t just me. Atlanta is known as a city with a bunch of really smart, hardworking people that get the job done. We have a vision of being a progressive city, and we only get in trouble when somebody wants to turn us around and take us back the wrong way.”

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After a march and speeches on March 10, a statue Andrew Young was unveiled in front of family members, special guests, and the public. at Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Vine City, an Atlanta neighborhood. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

After a march and speeches on March 10, a statue Andrew Young was unveiled in front of family members, special guests, and the public. at Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Vine City, an Atlanta neighborhood. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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After a march and speeches on March 10, a statue Andrew Young was unveiled in front of family members, special guests, and the public. at Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Vine City, an Atlanta neighborhood. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Young moved to Atlanta in 1961 after he and his first wife, Jean Childs Young, had spent several years in New York City working on the executive staff of the National Council of the Churches of Christ. From there, they watched civil rights workers who were part of the Student Movement, like John Lewis, get beaten.

“My wife said, ‘We gotta go home,’” said Young, who wasn’t eager to venture back South. “She wanted to come back to the South to be a part of the growth and development that was becoming the civil rights movement.” She would later die of cancer.

Young got a job at Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But he soon found himself as a key player in King’s inner circle.

In 1973, five years after King’s assassination, he was elected as the first Black U.S. congressman from Georgia since Reconstruction. In 1977, while in his third term of what could have been a lifetime seat, President Jimmy Carter appointed him as the first Black United States ambassador to the United Nations. Afterward, Young, who had by then traveled to more than 50 countries, returned to Atlanta and ran for mayor.

His two terms were a bundle of contradictions. He brought international money and attention to Atlanta, but people complained that he spent too much time outside of the city doing it.

Shirley Franklin, Young’s chief of staff who would become mayor herself, said the criticism never bothered Young because he knew people would ultimately be attracted to his message.

“What he was doing while he was traveling was for the benefit of the city,” Franklin said. “He was an international figure who happened to be the mayor of Atlanta. That is huge. He doesn’t worry about his own legacy, which is a great legacy.”

He continued playing roles in the city’s development after he left office.

He co-chaired the efforts to land the Olympics. A key member of Greece’s competing committee noted at the time that Young was better known across the world than the city he represented.

In 2006, when Franklin was mayor, Young approached her to put together a $32 million deal to secure the 13,000-piece Martin Luther King Jr. Papers from the King family just days before Sotheby’s was to auction it off.

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Andrew Young entertains a group of reporters during a press event for the release of the book and opening of the 90-day-exhibit "The Many Lives of Andrew Young" at the Millennium Gate in Atlantic Station on Friday, March 11, 2022, in conjunction with the Ambassador’s 90th birthday. Later, Young cut the ribbon on the exhibit at a gala at the Gate. The exhibit will be on display for 90 days. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Andrew Young entertains a group of reporters during a press event for the release of the book and opening of the 90-day-exhibit "The Many Lives of Andrew Young" at the Millennium Gate in Atlantic Station on Friday, March 11, 2022, in conjunction with the Ambassador’s 90th birthday.  Later, Young cut the ribbon on the exhibit at a gala at the Gate.  The exhibit will be on display for 90 days.   (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
Andrew Young entertains a group of reporters during a press event for the release of the book and opening of the 90-day-exhibit "The Many Lives of Andrew Young" at the Millennium Gate in Atlantic Station on Friday, March 11, 2022, in conjunction with the Ambassador’s 90th birthday. Later, Young cut the ribbon on the exhibit at a gala at the Gate. The exhibit will be on display for 90 days. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

“Even when the opportunities to work with him seemed difficult, he would take the time to work through the issues and he taught me many lessons,” Franklin said. “He is always looking for ways for Atlanta to be better.”

“I’m proud of how far Atlanta has come and how much of a contribution I made,” Young said. “I don’t think there is a city in the world that has blossomed like we have.”

The den of Young’s Southwest Atlanta home looks like a museum. Black and white photographs and original pieces, some commissioned especially for him, line the walls. Artifacts collected in his many roles fill tables and shelves. His Presidential Medal of Freedom and Emmy Awards, centerpieces of any other collection, are almost hidden among the treasures.

After a lifetime of serving the Black community, the city, state and world, Young now devotes a lot of time to family. His wife of 25 years, Carolyn, dotes on him, and his four children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild are never far away.

Andrea Young said he never misses family events like a graduation or christening.

“There are a lot of us now and he loves it,” Andrea Young said. “I just think about how he just weeps when the family is together.”

Young launches into a story about longevity. His grandmother, Louisa Czarnowski Fuller, and mother, Daisy Fuller Young, both died at 86. His father, Andrew Young Sr., at 85. Young’s brother, Walter, 87, still sees patients as a dentist.

Young reflected on King’s admonitions to his inner circle to not expect the long life that he has enjoyed.

“Dr. King used to say that we were clinically insane to think that this bunch of ragtag, young Negroes could redeem the soul of this nation. We didn’t have any money. We didn’t have any weapons. We didn’t even have the right to vote back then,” Young said. “He said we’ll be lucky to make it to 40. But if we make it to 40, we are gonna have to keep this struggle going to at least 100.”

Of the civil rights lions, Young is one of the few who have gotten close.

“It was my grandmother looking forward to death that never made me worry about it,” he said. “I mean, it, when it happens, it happens. Dr. King used to also say that death is the ultimate democracy because everybody’s going to die, and you don’t have anything to say about when you die or how you die.

“Your only choice is what is it that you’re willing to devote your life to.”