Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young revealed tensions in the civil rights movement as he shared stories with a gathering of more than 300 state and federal appellate judges and attorneys on the opening afternoon of a four-day summit at the Marriott Marquis.
The event is the Appellate Judges Education Institute Summit, hosted with the Eleventh Circuit Appellate Practice Institute and the Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke University School of Law. Young followed a program featuring retired Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Herbert Phipps, titled “Drum Majors for Justice: the Georgia Experience.”
Young was introduced by King & Spalding partner Harold Franklin, a past president of both the Atlanta and Gate City bar associations. Franklin called Young a friend, mentor, minister, confidant and civil rights icon, having worked closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Young later served as a U.S. representative and U.N. ambassador under President Jimmy Carter.
The two are also fellow congregants, Franklin said.
“Although he goes more than I do,” Young added. “But he needs it more.”
The crowd seemed particularly interested and asked for more detail on the first time Young met U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Marshall swore Young in as U.N. ambassador, but their first meeting was many years earlier. Young said his father took him to court to watch Marshall argue a federal voting rights case in New Orleans, where Young grew up.
Young said what he remembered about that day in court was that Marshall “kept citing cases.” Clerks were running out to retrieve big books and bring them to the judge. And Marshall would tell them the page numbers.
But Young confided that Marshall wasn’t entirely comfortable with the civil rights protesters he so successfully defended.
“He didn’t get along with us,” Young said. “He did not like civil disobedience. He had been dealing with the letter of the law for so long. But we had to press the law and deal with the spirit of the law in order to get it to change.”
As he spoke, complaints were being argued over Tuesday’s election vote count in Atlanta and across Georgia, and former Secretary of State Brian Kemp was being accused of suppressing minority votes while claiming his Republican victory in a still contested race for governor against Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams.
Young told a story of his own about voter suppression. He said it was his first lesson and it was long before he met King. He learned instead from his wife—the late Jean Young. “Unfortunately, she’s gone on to glory. But she was ready. She was a saint.”
The Youngs had moved to Georgia for him to pastor a small church in Thomasville. Young was asked to run a voter registration drive, which he did, thinking it would be a simple matter. He realized he was wrong when he saw about 100 Ku Klux Klan members gathered outside their tiny wooden “shack,” as he put it. “One match on the porch and it would have gone up in flames,” he said. And they had a 3-year-old inside.
“I told my wife I’m going out to talk to them,” Young said. “But I told her, I want you to sit in the window and point a rifle at the one I’m talking to so I can negotiate from a position of strength.” She said no, she could not do that. And this is what she told him: “If you can’t remember that under that sheet is a child of God, then you have no business being a preacher.” He said, “Baby, what if they burn the house with us in it?”
She said, “So. Don’t you preach about the cross? If you’re not prepared to live it, then we need to do something else.”
So instead, they survived the night, and he went to town and talked with the local mayor and heads of the biggest employers in town, and they all agreed to a peaceful resolution.
Then Young darted to another story of Coretta Scott King as a 15-year-old when the Klan burned her family’s home. She said the first thing her father did was pray—giving thanks that his family survived and then asking grace for the people who did it.
“Judges have to be the reconcilers,” Young said. But he added that a successful civil rights movement and a strong society is “built on a spiritual foundation.”
Franklin helped build that case by sharing something Young has said to him: “You don’t overcome evil with evil, for inside itself it has the seeds of its own destruction.”