The United Nations ambassador spoke in front of a crowd of students and community members at Kennesaw State University on Sunday, recalling his experiences with King.
On the eve of King’s birthday, Young told the audience that it was the translation of King’s dream into attainable ideal that allowed the metro Atlanta area to become the capital of the South.
“It was a mix of religion, a little politics, but mostly it was plugging into an ideal,” Young said.
King’s spirit of unity didn’t just bring together different races, Young said, but also inspired international harmony that allowed Atlanta to become a global hub.
Young pointed to King’s influence on the growth of Hartsfield-Jackson International Atlanta Airport and on Atlanta becoming the site of the 1996 Olympic Games.
“When I first came out here in the 1980s, I mean, this was the sticks,” Young jokingly said referring to Kennesaw State.
Still, Young said King’s path was blazed for him by other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
“Martin Luther King was the product of an era, and we make a mistake if we focus solely on him,” Young said.
King’s success paved by other leaders
King wanted to avoid politics and did poorly in his college public speaking course. He didn’t intend to become a catalyst for world change, Young said.
“I was a doctor’s son and he was a preacher’s son. We had no hard experiences in race, but two pretty girls growing up in a small hick town had experienced racism,” Young said of their wives.
It was the leaders who came before him, like Rosa Parks, who inspired King and enabled him to bring change.
Young recalled the reaction at the White House after King was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
“When we came back, you would have thought the whole world would have been celebrating,” Young said.
But King and Young weren’t invited to the White House by President Lyndon Johnson until after members of the press had left for the day, ensuring the pair would be unseen.
Johnson told King he wanted to help protect voting rights but didn’t have the power. When they left, Young recalled that King said, “I think we got to figure out a way to get this president some power.”
Just a few months later, voting rights came into the spotlight when violence broke out in Selma, Ala. as a group of activists demanded the right to vote. Later that year, Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress.
“God had found a way to get that president some power,” Young said.
‘Legend’ brings history alive
Young’s message provided an invitation for action, said Eric Malewski, chief diversity officer at KSU.
Malewski called Young a “living legend” and said his accounts of King brought to life an era in American history that is too often relegated to the pages of a history book.
“We live by our stories,” Malewski said.
It’s easy to put too much pressure on ourselves, said Michael Sanseviro, dean of student success, but it’s not important to always know the answer.
It’s more important to do “good,” Sanseviro said.
“I think too often we put people on a pedestal,” he said.