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VOL. 132 | NO. 81 | Monday, April 24, 2017

Young Says Hooks Led in ’60s Without Pursuing Politics

By Bill Dries

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Just before he came to Memphis in April 1968 with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young remembers a meeting in Atlanta with King and U.S. Rep. John Conyers, Harry Belafonte and Richard Hatcher, the newly elected African-American mayor of Gary, Indiana.

In Memphis last week, civil rights veteran and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young talked about his reluctant decision to turn to politics from being in Dr. Martin Luther King’s inner circle.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

The question the group considered and planned to pursue after Memphis was “How do we take the energy of this movement and put it into politics?” Young spoke last week at the 20th anniversary gala of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change – the institute founded by the civil rights leader, attorney, judge and Baptist minister.

The gala came the same week that the University of Memphis marked the release and digitization of the Hooks papers.

The 400 boxes of material included 200,000 documents, photographs and recordings, the largest digitization ever undertaken by the university.

Young, who was executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that King led, did get into politics after King’s assassination – winning election to Congress, mayor of Atlanta and appointed as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations as well as running unsuccessfully for governor of Georgia.

But Young didn’t start on that path without some hesitation, and the hesitation was based on the experience of Hooks and two other Memphis attorneys who helped define the civil rights movement in Memphis – Russell Sugarmon and A.W. Willis.

Looking back on it, Young says the trio didn’t need political office to lead.

“He had us coming and going,” Young said of Hooks. “Giving us spiritual, political and economic leadership. It broke down when they started running for office and that’s the reason I didn’t want to run for office.”

Hooks was elected a Criminal Court judge, Willis and Sugarmon to the Tennessee Legislature – all three during the 1960s. Hooks became executive director of the NAACP in the mid-1970s.

“I thought they had this state under control and they got along good with the governor and they got along good with both parties,” Young said of his encounters with them during the 1960s before they ran for office. “Whoever was in the White House, they were represented.”

With King’s assassination in Memphis, Young questioned what was next and for him. After some hesitancy, it was running for elected office.

“And I probably didn’t have a choice, but I decided it would be more important for me to help people make money than for me to make money for myself,” Young said. “That was kind of the thing that was going on when they were running Memphis without being in office. When you get in office, then there are too many problems. They want to undercut you – folks in the press. … It’s just the way life and politics have coincided. Everybody thinks politics is corrupt. I have never found that. It can be.”

He cited the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when more than $2 billion was raised from private sources and more than 40 percent of every dollar spent on the games went to minority businesses.

As mayor in the 1980s, Young was instrumental in Atlanta’s bid that brought the 1996 games to the city.

“If I had been trying to make money on the Olympics, we couldn’t have gotten it. But when I decided to back off, we brought the Olympics to Atlanta,” he said. “Every investor that came in, I said it out loud – ‘You do not have to pay anybody under the table. … If you think you do, if somebody says you do, call me and tell me who they are and what they wanted and I’ll deal with it.’”

At age 85, Young has found himself in Memphis several times this spring. He was in the city earlier this month on the anniversary of King’s assassination, for the unveiling of a historical marker at Memphis International Airport noting King’s flight into the city in 1968.

Last week, he remembered thinking, “What are we going to do now,” in the immediate aftermath of King’s murder.

“But you know, we made it,” he said. “We’ve done most of the things that he dreamed about in terms of race and war. We’re in much better shape now than we were then or ever before. The one thing we didn’t make much progress on nationally was poverty.”

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