Andrew Young talks of past during Columbus Black History breakfast, tells local leaders to look to future

In a stirring speech that highlighted the trials and triumphs of his storied career as a civil rights leader, mayor and international diplomat, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young stood before a crowd of 500 and challenged Chattahoochee Valley leaders to think big in their plans for the tri-community area.

Young, a former Atlanta mayor and U.S. Congressman, was the keynote speaker at the 28th Annual Black History Observance Breakfast at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. The event drew a diverse crowd of business leaders, students, elected officials and the general public.

Young told the audience of the audacity that it took to bring the Centennial Olympic Games to Atlanta in 1996 and to build the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. He said leaders had to convince corporate businesses to invest in the future of the city in order to bring about change, and the entire Atlanta area benefited as a result.

Young turned to Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who sat on the platform along with Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe and Fort Benning commander Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and issued a challenge.

“I think you all can do the same thing in the tri-cities,” Young said. “It might be hard for Columbus by itself to develop the credit rating, but if you put Columbus and Phenix City and Fort Benning together, anything you all can conceive of, there are people out here who are anxious to finance it. And if you structure it right, it will pay for itself, it will generate jobs, it will generate wealth and there's no better place in the world to live than South Georgia.”

Tomlinson said she remembers Young’s leadership when she grew up in Atlanta and it has inspired her vision for Columbus. She said his speech was a clarion call for leaders in the Columbus area to come together for redevelopment projects such as the one proposed for the Old Liberty Theater District, once the hub of the black community.

Under a plan now in the works, the Housing Authority of Columbus hopes to build 100 units on three blocks surrounding the area as part of its plans to tear down the old Booker T. Washington apartment complex and provide residents with replacement housing. The Columbus Planning Advisory Commission recently voted in favor of rezoning for the project, and the proposal must now go to the City Council.

“Andrew Young’s speech this morning really hit the nail on the head with what we’re trying to do here,” Tomlinson said, “that you can get private investment to come in and help build communities, and it’s a win-win because their money is earning more investing in the community than it is sitting in the bank. And it’s to the taxpayers' advantage, it’s to the citizens’ advantage and it’s to the businesses' advantage.”

Following the speech, Young told the Ledger-Enquirer there’s a lot cities could do to revitalize low-income areas. He said when Atlanta built the airport and MARTA, the city had to relocate people living in some older neighborhoods, but officials made sure they were well-compensated so they could find adequate housing. The city also included minority businesses in all its projects. Wealth generates wealth, he said, and many minority businesses have benefited from the city’s progress.

“There are ways that you can do things, if you include care for the poor in your bigger plans,” he said. “And if you don’t, they’re going to raise so much hell, you won’t get anything done.”

Young grew up in New Orleans, where his father was a dentist and mother a school teacher. In 1955, he received a bachelor of divinity degree from Hartford Theological Seminary, and began his early career as a pastor. He later became a close ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and played an instrumental role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. He was with King was he was gunned down in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968.

In 1972, Young became the first African-American from the Deep South elected to the U.S. Congress since Reconstruction. President Jimmy Carter appointed him as the first African-American U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1977.

Young was elected mayor of Atlanta in 1982 and later served as co-chair of the Atlanta Olympic Committee, leading a successful effort to bring the summer games to the city in 1996.

During his speech, Young said he learned about the positive impact businesses can have on the community while working with King during the civil rights movement.

He said when demonstrations were held in Birmingham during the 1960s, King wouldn’t let him participate in the protests. His job was to negotiate with business leaders who were concerned that black residents were boycotting their businesses. Through negotiation, he pushed for the removal of signs that separated blacks and whites at drinking fountains and for black employment at department stores. As a result, 100 businessmen signed an agreement to desegregate Birmingham even when it was against the law. He brought the point home when he referenced Alabama's segregationist governor, George Wallace.

“Wallace’s law didn’t change,” he said. “But the business practices of the business community in Birmingham changed dramatically and Birmingham changed with it.

“The whole notion of non-violence was never so much about the violence and the bombings and the beatings and firehoses and the dogs," he said. "We have been able, as we’ve thought through problems of this world, to solve those problems with relatively little violence."

When he became mayor, Young said, he took those lessons with him. He said the city couldn’t get money from Washington so his administration turned to Wall Street. The city created tax exempt municipal bonds and was able to build the airport and bring the Olympics at practically no expense to the city.

When he left office in 1990, the airport employed 60,000 people and it was generating $31.5 billion in economic development each year, Young said.

“So $10 billion to invest to get back $31 billion and 60,000 jobs, that’s good business,” he said. He then turned it into a pitch for a new downtown stadium for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. The stadium idea has not gained traction in the Georgia General Assembly.

“I don’t know why Georgia politicians can’t understand good business,” he said.

Young said in the last report he saw, there were 434,000 jobs directly related to the airport and the revenue stream was $52.3 billion annually.

Young also shared a story about his first visit to Columbus in 1954. He was a little country pastor down in Thomasville and Beachton, Ga. The March of Dimes in Columbus was looking for volunteers, and he became the chair of the March of Dimes for Thomas and Brady County. He said through the organization people of all races came together to eliminate polio and the same can happen with racial inequality.

“Normally in Black History Month, we get up and talk about what’s wrong and about the problems that we still have,” he said. “Just as we have wiped out polio, we have wiped out smallpox off the face of the earth, by-and-large we are making similar strides in racism."