The unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., this week has brought attention to the slain leader's former lieutenants, many of whom became iconic figures in the civil rights movement.
One of the most prominent is Andrew Young, one of King's closest friends and top assistants at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Young, a minister like most of his peers in the movement, became the first among them to make a successful move into national politics. Young is a former mayor of Atlanta, congressman and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
He is also known for making provocative remarks about race and politics. Young is in Washington for the week's events, and NPR talked with him about the memorial and how King's legacy might influence today's politics, particularly the nation's first African-American president. Young contends that President Obama is "doing the best he can," but he complains that Democrats "don't understand what's happening economically." He casts the Tea Party as a "vestige" of white segregationist politics and cautions Democrats not to cede the South in the 2012 election cycle. Excerpts:
Corey Dade: A goal for you and many others has long been to bring the appreciation of King's philosophy of nonviolent social change into the mainstream. Does this memorial accomplish that?
Andrew Young: I don't think they were just trying to be fair, to have a black person up there. ... In that context, I think this shows that he was one of our nation's founding fathers who healed the nation without killing anybody and without destroying people or property. That's not just a black message or an American message. It's a message for the world.
I compare it to the difficulties in Libya now. I wish they'd have been more like Egypt. Or that the [Obama] administration had done what [President] Jimmy Carter did with southern Africa — help them bring peace.
Martin's statue will be a constant reminder that there is a more excellent way of solving problems than killing people and dropping bombs.
Dade: You mentioned former President Carter, whom you served as U.N. ambassador. Carter is the last Democratic president to lose re-election, and some political observers — including Democrats — now believe Obama could meet the same fate. Put on your old politician's cap and share your thoughts about the president.
Young: The president is doing the best he can. But Carter's presidency failed almost for the same reason that Obama's is being challenged. That is, the Democrats don't understand what's happening economically. They are still playing by the same rules — that the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt is still working and that Americans believe in it. And Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and a strong Supreme Court that understands the legacy of racism and class and segregation, and makes decisions based on justice and fairness. We no longer have a Supreme Court like that.
The Democrats have not understood that the economic rules of the game have changed. ... Just look at the Supreme Court ruling that a business can contribute [to political candidates] as though [it was] a person, with no limits. That means every election is for sale.
Dade: If the president is relying on bad, or outdated, guidance, how would you get him to change course?
Young: I think we were lulled to sleep by the fact that we had an African-American president. We haven't done anything to help President Obama. Me and you, and everybody else. And the Congressional Black Caucus. It's so touchy to picket or protest against a black president. When I became mayor of Atlanta, they showed me no such respect. I got sworn in and the same day all of my boys from the [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] were there, protesting. They said, 'Pharaoh, you got to open the doors.' I said, 'But I trained you all. I taught you everything you know.' They said, 'Yeah, that's why we're not going to make it easy for you. We're going to hold you accountable.'
Dade: Obama himself has made essentially the same argument that good economic policies help all Americans ("A rising tide lifts all boats," he often says). But that hasn't satisfied his critics among liberal Democrats and prominent blacks, such as Princeton professor Cornel West. How can Obama restore that critical support base?
Young: I've been trying to figure a way to help the president. I think maybe the [King] statue is a way to galvanize what Martin used to call "the coalition of conscience." Just starting that dialogue.
Dade: What does this coalition of conscience look like today for Obama?
Young: I think back to Georgia. Thirty percent of people in Georgia always voted for the racist who was running. That was a vestige of the Ku Klux Klan, which became the [John] Birch Society and now is the Tea Party. We never let them win. We have always met them with a message of conscience. Like [Rep.] Maxine Waters [D-CA] might say 'Tell 'em [the Tea Party] to go to hell.' I like Maxine, but it takes a real diplomat to tell them to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.
That's a racist narrative — and it is racist — that has to be confronted in the right way.
Dade: You're not the first African-American to tie Tea Party rhetoric to the political views of white segregationists during the Jim Crow era. Tea Party leaders have vigorously denied any suggestion that their platform is racially charged. Why do you believe this historical connection exists?
Young: Right now the country is so polarized and I don't want to be part of that polarization. I hope this didn't come off as blanket condemnation. At the same time, those of us who have experienced in our families a century of segregation and oppression tend to be very suspicious of conservatism as being socially and morally irresponsible. We have always tended to think of them as the enemy, but the thing that characterized Martin Luther King's ministry was that we always reached out to them and tried to understand them. We saw them as an enemy, but we were taught to love our enemies. The success of nonviolence was reconciliation with one's enemies. To do that, you have to hear them out and understand them.
When I ran for Congress the first time, I asked my friends to bring some of their John Birch Society friends to our meetings. When they came and we had a chance to interact, I ended up getting some of their votes.
Dade: Then do you really think today's conservativism includes a racist narrative?
Young: It creeps into their attacks on the president. There is a rather unfair and ruthless critique of him. At the same time, I always remind myself that democracy is confrontational. You go back to Thomas Jefferson, who was an advocate of pure democracy, and Alexander Hamilton, who was trying to develop a financial system to go with that democracy. Their critiques of each other were ruthless. The thing that we see now is that both of them were right.
Dade: From Obama and the Democrats, what should be the message of "conscience" against hard-core conservatives who are attacking the president?
Young: First, I see the revolt against government as selfish. After [Tea Party members] had the benefits of big government — all of us have been beneficiaries of big government — there seems to be a desire to close the door on the rest of us. That's the polarizing view.
So the message of conscience is that it's not fair. It is a fairness issue that's a missing part in their [Tea Party] narrative. It's not fair that all the people in the baby boomers were getting more Pell Grants and low-cost college tuitions and now the young generation isn't. ... So, come up with policies that are fair. I support a free market, but a free market must be a fair market. We already know that if you don't get the right to vote in a democracy, you're a slave. But if you don't have access to capital in capitalism, you're still a slave. We've got to find a way to make it possible for poor and working-class people to have a stake in this economy. That helps everybody.
Dade: In 2008, you were arguably the most prominent African-American who did not shift your support to Obama's candidacy during the primaries. You continued to support Hillary Clinton. Why do you want to help him get re-elected?
Young: I had known Hillary Clinton since she was a college student. I did not know Obama at all, and I still don't know him at all. But he ran the best campaign, and he won. And I support his presidency.
I haven't found a way to get to him, which is OK with me. But I have to find a way to help him whether he wants it or not. So, what I've been thinking about is ... we have to find a way to win in the South.
We elected Jimmy Carter, right out of ... Atlanta. I went to 40 states at my own expense. I was in the Congress then and I campaigned for Carter in congressional districts. That's still possible for members of Congress to do for Obama.
And, back in 1992, we got [Bill] Clinton to come down here the weekend before the election, just when people said not [to] waste your time with Georgia. ... He won Georgia by 11,000 votes. If we had listened to the experts and not rallied Georgia for Clinton, he wouldn't have won the presidency.
Frankly, the Obama political people, their strategy does not include the South. So we in the South have to tell them to go to hell, too, and find a way to carry the Southern states.