The AJC’s Ernie Suggs chronicles the rich life of Andrew Young in new book

In celebration of Andrew Young's 90th birthday, the release of the book and opening of the exhibit of "The Many Lives of Andrew Young" took place at the Millennium Gate in Atlantic Station on Friday, March 11, 2022.  Ernie Suggs, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote the book after hours of interviews and decades following the Ambassador's life and career. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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In celebration of Andrew Young's 90th birthday, the release of the book and opening of the exhibit of "The Many Lives of Andrew Young" took place at the Millennium Gate in Atlantic Station on Friday, March 11, 2022. Ernie Suggs, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote the book after hours of interviews and decades following the Ambassador's life and career. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

As a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ernie Suggs has been crossing paths with Andrew Young since 1997. As the civil rights icon’s 90th birthday approached, Suggs wanted to honor the former congressman, ambassador, mayor and co-chair of the 1996 Summer Olympics Games by chronicling his life in pictures and words.

“The Many Lives of Andrew Young” (NewSouth Books) — a compilation of hundreds of full-color photographs, personal recollections from Young and narrative by Suggs — is the resulting tribute.

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Images of Andrew Young from 1965 in Selma, Ala. (right); and from 2018 inside the Swan House at the Atlanta History Center. (Library of Congress; Alyssa Pointer/AJC)

Credit: File

Images of Andrew Young from 1965 in Selma, Ala. (right); and from 2018 inside the Swan House at the Atlanta History Center. (Library of Congress; Alyssa Pointer/AJC)

Credit: File

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Images of Andrew Young from 1965 in Selma, Ala. (right); and from 2018 inside the Swan House at the Atlanta History Center. (Library of Congress; Alyssa Pointer/AJC)

Credit: File

Credit: File

Fortunately for Suggs, Young hails from a family whose personal archives included everything from photographs and grade-school report cards, to letters from Young to his parents and a handwritten correspondence from President Jimmy Carter on White House stationery to Young’s mother, Daisy Fuller Young. Deeper dives through through traditional media outlets, museums and libraries in New Orleans, D.C. and Atlanta to comb through Young’s papers yielded such a well-rounded portrait that it brought back memories for Young himself.

“It was just an amazing experience to sit down and write this book,” says Suggs. “And it has been an even greater experience touring the country with the Ambassador and getting to know him better on a personal level. This has truly been the professional highlight of my life.”

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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

In advance of his conversation with Ambassador Young at the Atlanta History Center on June 30, Suggs fielded questions from ArtsATL about Young’s introduction to conflict resolution; his awakening on a mountaintop; and the importance of speaking from the heart.

Q: What were some of the formative experiences of Andrew Young’s childhood in New Orleans that shaped his philosophy of resolving conflicts peacefully?

A: People underestimate just how much the fact of being Black can shape your thinking and philosophy. Andrew Young grew up in New Orleans, which at the time was a very international city with Black, white, Creole and French influences. In his white neighborhood, where his father had a dental practice, there was an intersection that had an Italian bar on one corner, a Chevy dealer on another, an Irish grocer on one and the Nazi party headquarters on the fourth. So as he said, he had to “be an ambassador and a negotiator to get to the grocery store and not get beat up.” Essentially, he has been negotiating and learning how to deal with peaceful conflict all his life and to quote him again, “I was born into this destiny.”

Q: Why did you choose to forego the usual format for a biography in favor of a coffee table book that reads like a scrapbook or personal journal?

A: Because Young’s life is so colorful and rich. Practically speaking, Young’s life, dating as far back to his childhood, has been well documented. His family owned a photo studio, so even though he was born in the 1930s, there are tons of photos of him as a child — rare for Black children in those days. His mother saved all of his letters and documents.

And as a civil rights leader, congressman, ambassador and mayor, there are reams of visual data on him. So I felt this would be a better way to honor him vividly. Plus, in 1995, he released his own autobiography, “An Easy Burden,” so it was already done. And as a result, we have a book that is accessible to people. That kids can read. That you can pick up and read in pieces.

Q: It may come as a surprise to some readers that Ambassador Young attended seminary, was ordained as a minister and led a congregation in Thomasville before joining the civil rights movement. What did his tenure in the pulpit teach him about making connections with listeners through public speaking?

A: I was surprised as well. Coming into the project, I knew very little about that aspect of his life, and I think few in the public realize that Andrew Young is an ordained minister. His father, a dentist, wanted him to follow in his footsteps. Young entered the ministry after rejecting a life as a dentist. So he entered the ministry under his own accord. What I think it taught him, particularly when connecting with audiences, is to speak from the heart.

After one of his first sermons in Thomasville, a parishioner came up to him afterwards and scolded him for having read his sermon from a prepared text. He was told that he had to speak from the heart. After that, he never wrote anything down again. I have heard subsequent stories of him speaking extemporaneously at an event like a graduation or even a funeral and presenting the most thoughtful speech anyone has ever heard, off the top of his head. At a recent appearance for the book, I was scribbling some notes before we went on stage, and he told me to put my notes away.

Q: Shortly after graduating from Howard University, where Young admits to having been aimless, he experienced an awakening after running to the top of King’s Mountain in North Carolina. How did his life change as a result?

A: Young admits that he was not a good student at Howard, one of the premier HBCUs in the country. He ran track and swam with dreams of being an Olympian. He pledged the oldest Black fraternity in the country and dated rich D.C. students. He was also conflicted about where he wanted his life to go. Young toyed with public service and thought about the ministry. He was doubtful that he would even graduate.

He did graduate, of course, and literally, as his parents were taking him back to New Orleans from D.C., they stopped at a religious retreat in Kings Mountain. A runner, he decided to run up the mountain. He was sprinting, and, overcome by something, passed out. When he came to, he saw the world differently. The colors were brighter. Everything seemed full of new meaning. And as he ran back down the mountain, he ran into his destiny, which he saw was to serve people as a pastor. Instead of going to dental school, he headed to Hartford Theological Seminary. Where, unlike Howard, he thrived inside of the classroom, having discovered his purpose.

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Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter and author of “The Many Lives of Andrew Young” (NewSouth Books, $60), with Ambassador Andrew Young in 2012.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter and author of “The Many Lives of Andrew Young” (NewSouth Books, $60), with Ambassador Andrew Young in 2012.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

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Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter and author of “The Many Lives of Andrew Young” (NewSouth Books, $60), with Ambassador Andrew Young in 2012.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Q: As a reporter for the AJC (and fraternity brother), you’ve had a decades-long relationship with Ambassador Young. Did anything about his life’s story come as a surprise to you during the research and writing of your book?

A: Yes and no. I was surprised by the religious conversation and marveled at the fact that he was able to pinpoint the moment it happened, which I liken to a Biblical awakening. But because we are fraternity brothers — albeit 39 years apart, as he joined in 1950 and I joined in 1989 — I knew about his many achievements. He is one of the fraternity’s greatest living members, so even before I knew him, I “knew him.” Alpha men are trained and expected to achieve or strive for greatness and serve their communities. It is what I have tried to do since 1989, so, on a personal note, having a role model that I could watch, study, emulate and learn from has been very special.

Q: What was Ambassador Young’s response to seeing his life distilled in your words and the visual media selected to round out his biography?

A: He was thrilled. When he saw the proof, he was very emotional. And at one of our events, he said that even more so than his own autobiography, this is a book that his grandchildren can pick up and read, understand and enjoy.

Q: Which skill sets honed as a journalist did you find most useful in the writing of this biography?

A: Great question. I have been covering Young since I moved to Atlanta in 1997, so the institutional knowledge was there, which is very important. So I was able to go into the project with a certain level of understanding of what the story was. But any reporter worthy of his pen will tell you that it is important to listen. So I made sure that during this process, and during my interviews, I sat down and listened to get the clearest understanding I could of what the story was. How to organize the story. And then how to tell the story. So being a reporter at the AJC since 1997, with so many amazing mentors who made me everything I am as a journalist and writer, I feel that I was very prepared for the challenge of telling Young’s story.

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In 1981, Young succeeded Maynard Jackson as mayor of Atlanta. Young served for two terms throughout the 1980s, positioning the city as an international hub for business. (Kelly Wilkinson / AJC file)

Credit: Kelly Wilkinson

In 1981, Young succeeded Maynard Jackson as mayor of Atlanta. Young served for two terms throughout the 1980s, positioning the city as an international hub for business. (Kelly Wilkinson / AJC file)

Credit: Kelly Wilkinson

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In 1981, Young succeeded Maynard Jackson as mayor of Atlanta. Young served for two terms throughout the 1980s, positioning the city as an international hub for business. (Kelly Wilkinson / AJC file)

Credit: Kelly Wilkinson

Credit: Kelly Wilkinson

Q: How would Atlanta’s landscape be different absent Young’s public service as a congressman and mayor?

A: If Maynard Jackson was Jackie Robinson as Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Young was Hank Aaron. Meaning that Aaron’s generation of ballplayers who came after Robinson proved that Black people were just as capable or even better if given a chance. So as mayor, Young hit the ground running with grand ideas of how Atlanta could grow from a regional city to an international city where global corporations and Fortune 500 companies would want to do business, where the biggest airport in the world would be located.

Young tells the story of driving down Ponce on one of his first trips to Atlanta and slowing down for a crossing rat. Afraid to kill the rat, which he assumed had more rights in Atlanta than a Black man. Who could imagine that in this same city, this same man would help lead a civil rights movement, represent the state in congress, negotiate with world leaders as an ambassador and lead this very city as it hosted the 1996 Olympics? Mayors who have come after him have built on his legacy. Businesses that come here benefit from his vision. Minus Young and his vision, Atlanta would be half the city it is.

EVENT PREVIEW

Andrew Young in conversation with Ernie Suggs

7 p.m. June 30. $10; members $5. McElreath Hall at the Atlanta History Center, 130 W. Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta. 404.814.4000, atlantahistorycenter.com.


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Credit: ArtsATL

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Credit: ArtsATL

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Credit: ArtsATL

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