And an Upcoming Novel
Why Andrew Young Did Not Die under a Cement Truck & Why He Thinks It's Wrong to Say "Black Lives Matter"
The first thing you notice when Andrew Young enters the room is how small he is. Even with the heft that comes, inevitably it seems, with 83 years, he does not take up that much space. The second thing you notice is the beautiful woman on his arm, Carolyn, who happens to be vice chair of the Andrew Young Foundation and his wife of the past 19 years. If you look past the TV crew and the glare of lights, you will see the watchful eyes of plainclothes security within arms’ reach.
The atrium of the Marriott Marquis is already full, and the Youngs’ entrance is not met with thunderous applause or anything else that might signal attention to their arrival. Drinks are being served. Sushi eaten. Cheese, fruit and various libations consumed. Music from steel drums and the din of cocktail party chatter have taken on a life of their own. If it has not yet occurred to you that something special is happening here, you need only look up to realize you are standing under a glass dome. Although there has been rain enough on this Sunday evening to bring the usual disruptions to Atlanta’s roadways, it does not diminish the impression made by the surrounding skyscrapers. They rise like giants above Peachtree Center -- their windows, unblinking eyes that bear witness to the event below.
Andrew Young walks with a limp now. And if you had not seen him for a while, you would wonder if it was caused by the cement truck that hit his car a few days earlier. But no, he walked away from that, unharmed. The limp is a sign of his tenacity, although those close to him might also call it stubbornness. The man needs knee surgery and refuses to slow down long enough to have it done.
What follows next are photographs, selfies and endless handshaking. Andrew Young is a pro at this. He lets everybody in. Takes time with them all. Smiles. Is polite. Humble. Amazing.
Someone with a microphone quiets the room, and the sponsors of tonight’s event are thanked. The reception is brief, less than an hour. The main event, a dinner and awards ceremony, must begin on time in the adjacent ballroom. You know how these big places are. “Adjacent” is still quite a trek, and The Ambassador—that is what everyone calls Andy Young these days—stops for a moment on a nearby sofa to rest.
That knee. But thank God, it was not the cement truck that caused it.
It will come out during the night that The Ambassador regards his near-death experience casually. “It simply means that it was not my time,” he has said. Hearing this, a proverb comes to mind: “If it’s not your time, nothing can harm you. If it is your time, nothing can save you.”
But then, The Ambassador does not seem to worry much about death. One feels he has found the metaphysical truth behind the Dylan Thomas poem: “After the first death, there is no other.”
First death, you say? The answer is yes. For sure. During the Civil Rights Movement. When he and men like him were willing to die for what they believed in. Young’s book about this is called An Easy Burden. Readers of the New Testament will recognize the Gospel of Matthew in the title. “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”
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During the awards dinner, Young only mentioned once that he was “beat up” during the Civil Rights Movement. And it may be that he and Martin and John Lewis felt they might die under those whippings. For who knows where a policeman’s club might fall or whether your skull will crack when your legs are knocked out from under you and your head meets the concrete beneath your feet? But I don’t think that’s the kind of death Young referred to in the title of his memoir. You have to die to yourself and let God take over. Schopenhauer calls it negation of the will. And the thing is, you don’t just do it once. You have to keep on doing it in every moment. Whenever you have a choice about anything. You surrender the ego, and miracles happen. Think it’s easy? Try it sometime.
Andy Young lives this way. He steps back and allows something greater than himself to come forward. That is why every person who spoke at the awards banquet said the words, “I love you,” when they addressed him. The people in the room included Hank Aaron, Congressman John Lewis, Mayor Kasim Reed, Evander Holyfield, Chris Tucker, billionaire philanthropist Strive Masiyiwa, Selma filmmaker Ava Duvernay, Valerie Simpson (Ashford and Simpson) and a host of other singers, musicians, dancers. One of the awardees was Warner Williams, a recently retired African-American vice president of the Chevron Corporation, whose work earned more than two billion dollars in revenue last year. Another was Alana Shepherd, Co-founder of the Shepherd Center where patients with catastrophic spinal injuries find physical, emotional, and psychological rehabilitation and a new lease on life.
The man they were all loving and thanking is a physically small man made large by the thing he surrenders to. Large? Absolutely. Consider the resume: Three-term member of Congress. Two-term Mayor of Atlanta. First African-American Ambassador to the United Nations. The man who helped bring the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta. Author. Preacher. Reverend. Civil Rights Hero. Husband. Father. Grandfather. Friend.
During the course of the evening, Young’s granddaughter mentioned that she had to explain to him why it is important for today’s protesters to say, “Black Lives Matter.” When it was his turn to speak, The Ambassador kindly explained to her that she was wrong. “All lives matter,” he told the room of some 1200 guests. You’ve got it wrong if you think in terms of black and white or of any race. The color is green. What’s happening out there today is the consequence of economic injustice.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Young said, admired the biblical story of The Good Samaritan. But I don’t want to be that Good Samaritan, King used to say. I want to do something about what happens on the difficult and dangerous road to Jericho to keep that man from coming to harm.
Andrew Young has the same goal. His Foundation is working to eradicate economic injustice. It is supporting public-private partnerships on health, nutrition, education, economic growth, democracy, and sustainable energy. Its Making of Modern Atlanta project will create a documentary and a series of panel discussions across the country to document and teach and share the kinds of decisions that helped Atlanta become “the city too busy to hate.” That’s just a little of what it’s doing. There’s a lot more.
The man they call The Ambassador has expanded his reach beyond the limitations of the United Nations into an ambassadorship of international peace and love. Cement trucks come and go. But it is not yet his time. He has too much work to do to stop now.
Andrew Young may be a small man, but that’s okay. His burden is easy.
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