What Andrew Younger taught me find out how to hold King’s motion going
(RNS) – When my friend Tony Lowden gave me Andrew Young’s phone number one day last summer and suggested I call him, I was waiting for a few words of wisdom from one of our country’s great civil rights activists, a lieutenant for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who on the day of his death with Dr. King was. I had long admired Young, who later served as Congressman, as President Jimmy Carter’s Ambassador to the United Nations and Mayor of Atlanta.
Since only our God can arrange the events of our lives, at the end of the day I would find myself in the middle of a racial riot in Atlanta reporting on an event the city hadn’t seen in decades. Young’s voice was still ringing in my ears.
What Young told me that morning was that despite the racial tensions in America at the moment, “We’ve done it before and we will do it again.”
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This doesn’t seem like the most hopeful message for a weekend on Martin Luther King Day. Where is the “we will overcome” when we just get through? Young, who grew up in New Orleans in the 1930s and 40s and worked with Dr. King’s side, having seen the racial upheaval of the 1960s, has traversed some of America’s dark valleys. He has seen the country change in terms of racial inequality.
But “getting through” points to what we celebrate on MLK Day: not overcoming, but fighting. Our country continues to fight when it comes to race, but King has shown us that it is what we do with the struggle, how we struggle, that defines and shapes us as followers of Christ.
Young, an ordained minister, told me on the phone that I should remember my calling when dealing with racial issues, which is to lead. “Martin would say if you’re not ready to stand up and lead, do something else,” said Young.
Leadership in the fight against injustice is not an easy matter. It is a responsibility to serve others, just as service was central to King’s mission. “Don’t be angry,” said Young. “Find a way to help others and solve the problem.” We need that spirit in our culture today.
Service means living for something bigger than ourselves. In the Christian context, this means recognizing that our life is not our own. And for King, this meant continuing the fight regardless of the cost, and even bearing the cost easily. “Martin would joke about death,” recalled Young, “and he made us laugh at death.”
This attitude towards the victim is not only evident in the work of Dr. King continued, but also in the work of the Savior he followed. It assumes that with God all things are possible. This includes resolving racial inequality in America.
Hours later, I was standing on a street in Atlanta, one of the most important cities in the south when it comes to racial equality, with a number of black mayors from Maynard Jackson to Young to Keisha Lance Bottoms – and still watched the racist upheaval called called like never before in real time .
The last key Young gave me before we hung up was this: Never let someone I disagree with become my enemy, but try my best to find common ground where I can.
This is our fight. I believed him because these weren’t just words to be repeated. It was something he did and something he watched Martin Luther King Jr. over and over again.
(Maina Mwaura is a writer and public speaker. The views expressed in this comment do not necessarily reflect those of the Religion News Service.)
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