Those who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School were in their teens. Those who sat with quiet dignity in Woolworth luncheonettes throughout the South or organized voters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer were college-aged. Even Martin Luther King Jr. was only in his mid-twenties when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott before rising to national prominence. It was a young movement and their idealism buoyed them through good times and bad.
The Luncheon Society has sat down with two members of the Little Rock Nine , Melba Beals Patillo and Terrence Roberts, to remind us of their courage and to remand their stories from being paved over by the next chapter of American history. Taylor Branch sat down with us last year in San Francisco and Los Angeles for a conversation about Bill Clinton as well as his trilogy of the Civil Rights Movement.
Thanks to the kindness of Christy Carpenter at The Paley Center in Manhattan, The Luncheon Society sat down with former UN Ambassador Andrew Young and his godson Kabir Sehgal for a conversation about their new book , “Walk in My Shoes: Conversations between a Civil Rights Legend and his Godson on the Journey .” We were also thankful that our great friend, Cari Beauchamp of Vanity Fair, was able to moderate the event in my absence.
The Book. The thrust of their book centers on conversations between Ambassador Young and his godson, Sehgal, in a series of mentor-student dialogues. Introduced to Ambassador Young as a youngster by the Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, he always followed Bobby Kennedy’s advice to reach out to those who looked to him for guidance. Within a short period of time, Sehgal was under Young’s tutelage.
Ambassador Young pulls no punches. With five decades between teacher and student, Young believes that the best way to impart knowledge is through an intense dialogue, keeping with traditions of oral dialogue alive where stories were passed down throughout the generations.
With Young, Sehgal captured a lifetime of wisdom. Andrew Young graduated from Howard University in Washington, believed in Gandhi’s approach to non-violence, joined the SCLC, became a close associate of Dr King, marched through the most difficult of places, and was present on the balcony when his mentor was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.
He went to Congress in the early 1970’s, supported Jimmy Carter’s presidential bid, and was selected to be the American Ambassador to the United Nations. After leaving the UN, he returned to Atlanta and ran for Mayor, where he served two terms and helped to attract the 1996 Summer Olympics to his city. Today, The Andrew Young Foundation supports human rights throughout the third World and the Andrew Young School for Policy Studies at Georgia State University is one of the preeminent public policy institutions in the country.
People forget poisonous atmosphere during the first decade of the Civil Rights movement, when George Wallace defiantly shredded the constitution, little children were bombed while attending church, and Bull Connor unleashed the dogs and fire hoses upon African-Americans in Birmingham. People also failed to recall that moderate commentators suggested a “go-slow approach” to King and others because the “good people of the American middle class” were still a generation away from welcoming neighbors with a darker hue.
In truth, each act of Congress was preceded by an appalling tragedy. The deaths three civil rights workers in Mississippi and the assassination of President Kennedy months earlier spurred passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bloody Sunday in 1965 served as the preface for Voting Rights Act, when over 600 peaceful marchers were attacked by uniformed members of the Alabama State Patrol.
Today, people take for granted that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Open Housing Act of 1968 somersaulted through both houses of Congress before it showed up at Lyndon Johnson’s desk. Today these acts are considered the pillars of our nation; no one shall be denied the basic elements of citizenship because of how we appear. When Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for the Senate from Kentucky, questioned the need for the various Civil Rights Acts he found himself rebuked by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, one of the upper house’s most conservative members.
Today, Ambassador Young feels that we have made progress in race, war, but still lag behind when it comes to poverty. Young said that the Civil Rights Movement would go continually to the Bank of Justice only to have its check denied on a regular basis. When Sehgal reached out to his godfather to see if he should remain in banking or enter politics, the surprise answer was to stay in banking. Young pointed to Birmingham.
The movement made progress in Birmingham because 300,000 residents boycotted local businesses, with the exception of food. Non-violence held a silent economic lever that the White Establishment could understand because African-Americans impacted their balance sheet too. It was a language that everybody could understand and benefit. Perhaps the next phase of Civil Rights is to attack poverty by using the material riches of our nation and beyond. Fast-forward to the 1996 bid for the Atlanta Olympics, Young made sure that 41% of the private funds would be spent on minority or women’s businesses and he believed this decision resonated with African nations when the final votes were cast.
The overriding message between the godfather and godson is that a rising tide lifts all ships. Perhaps if modern version of Martin Luther King Jr went into banking, he would be working to bring micro lending to the poor of Africa and Asia.
Today overt public racism has become illegal and unfashionable yet the private racism of the heart still exists. We have made a great deal of progress, but we still have miles to go. For us to really get to the Promised Land, we need the wisdom of those who are written in the chapters of history. We are thankful that because of the correspondence of Andrew Young and Kabir Sehgal, that wisdom is available for the asking.
The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Manhattan. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.