Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) reporter Ernie Suggs led a conversation about Suggs’ book “The Many Lives of Andrew Young” in the Emory Student Center on Feb. 22. The book was published in March 2022 and shares the “extraordinary life and times” of Young’s career.

Young received an honorary degree from Emory University in 1991, delivered the Commencement address and received the President’s Medal in 2019 and spoke at the 2021 Carter Town Hall.

Before the event, Suggs and Young attended a private reception in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library before the main event. University President Gregory Fenves and other Emory leaders including Fenves’ wife Carmel Fenves, Director of the Rose Library Jennifer Gunter King and Associate Vice Provost and Director of the Michael C. Carlos Museum Henry Kim, attended the event. The library displayed original archives of papers and pictures from the civil rights movement and Young shared stories about different archives to the audience.

Young discussed the early years of his career, including how he initially did not know what he wanted to do. During his undergraduate years at Howard University (D.C.), his father pushed him to become a dentist, but he knew that he “wasn’t going to be in an office” and he “couldn’t let somebody else control [his] life.”

“Usually I tell the story of the civil rights movement, but if something hadn’t happened to me in college, I might never have been in the civil rights movement,” Young said. “When I was at Howard University I had no clue as to what I wanted to do with my life. I looked one day at a time and I’m pretty sure it adds up. When you look back you got a significant life.”

Young became a civil rights leader during the civil rights movement and developed a close relationship with Martin Luther King Jr., helping him lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — an African American civil rights organization based in Atlanta — during the 1960s. He was the first Black Georgia congressman since the Reconstruction era, serving from 1973 to 1977. 

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young original archives of papers and pictures from the civil rights movement alongside Emory University leaders. (Eric Jones/Staff Writer)

Additionally, Young became the first Black U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1977. He was also the second Black mayor of Atlanta from 1982 to 1990.

Suggs, a journalist who specializes in race and culture and has written for the AJC since 1997, joined Young at Emory to showcase his new book on Young’s life and career.

During the event, Suggs and Young held a discussion, a Q&A session and a book signing. Young first spoke about his relationship with Carter and mentioned Carter’s recent decision to enter hospice care. Young had recently visited Carter’s hometown of Plains, Ga. last week to film recordings for the park service and explain some of the civil rights exhibits.

“They called me two days after I left and said that President Carter had decided that he wanted to go into hospice, that he didn’t want to go back to the hospitals or the doctors anymore,” Young said. “He’d just let nature take its course.”

Young added that he maintains a decades-long personal relationship with the Carter family, including Carter’s son, James “Chip” Carter, whose marriage Young officiated.

Young shared some personal accolades during his time as U.S. ambassador, adding that felt like he would always continue his affiliation with the United Nations during his lifetime.

“It is honest to goodness truth that I have never known today what my life would be tomorrow,” Young said. “There’s nothing I’ve done, where I knew a day ahead of time before it happened. And it’s just like I had no choice. I was born in New Orleans, and I had to grow up to be in the U.N. because there was an Irish grocery store on the corner. There was an Italian bar on another. The headquarters of the Nazi Party was on the third corner.”

Growing up in New Orleans and experiencing segregation created an “inevitability” that Young would become involved in the United Nations. The large population of Black adults and the small number of Black children meant that he could not go to school in his local neighborhood, so his father began educating him when he was four years old.

“He always told me don’t get mad, get smart — if you lose your temper in a fight, you’re gonna lose the fight,” Young said. “He said your mind is your most powerful weapon. And as long as you’re thinking, you can figure things out better than you can if you get emotional. So that’s true of everything. Don’t ever let your mind get turned off and get flustered and so that’s a perfect formula for going to the U.N. And I was just four.”

Young recalled a trip from Howard to New Orleans, where he faced segregation. His group was barred from staying in hotels, so the drive from Washington to Louisiana required an overnight stop at a missionary school in Kings Mountain, N.C.

In North Carolina, Young said that he got up early one morning to go running in the mountains, which ended up being a significant moment for him.

“You’re always running downhill, until it’s time to go up,” Young said. “By the time I got down here to the bottom of the mountain, I was exhausted, but I decided I was gonna run on top anyway, and I don’t know what I passed out or what happened, but I was in bad shape when I got to the top. And when I caught my breath and opened my eyes, the world just looked different.”

Young said that running to the top of the mountain became a reflection on the inspiration for the rest of his life, adding that the run was an “awakening” that compelled him to figure things out “one day at a time” and to do “whatever that day leads [him] to do.” 

“I didn’t hear any voices,” Young said. “I didn’t see any signs, except that the sky was bluer than it ever was before. The cows looked different. The trees looked different. And if everything I see has a purpose, whoever made all of this with a purpose didn’t make me the only thing on earth without a purpose.”

Suggs mentioned that he found this to be the most inspirational story when writing his book. 

“All of us look … for that moment in our lives,” Suggs said. “Everything clicks. For some of us that never happened, right? It clicked for you at that moment.”

Directing the conversation to Young’s time as mayor of Atlanta, Suggs recalled a story that Young told him about the segregation and racism he faced before becoming mayor. Young told Suggs that one of the first times he visited Atlanta, he stayed at the YMCA and saw the Klu Klux Klan marching down Auburn Avenue.

“One of the second times you came here, you were driving down Ponce de Leon, and you saw an animal or you saw a rat cross the street, and you were scared to drive your car and hit the rat, because you feared that you would be in more trouble for killing a rat, because rats had more power than Black people,” Suggs said.

Suggs juxtaposed the brutal treatment that Young and other Black people experienced in Atlanta with the way Young created a bright future for the city. Atlanta is home to several Fortune 500 companies and the busiest airport in the world, which according to Suggs can be attributed to Young’s mayorship a few decades ago.

“No job in the world is any better than being mayor of Atlanta,” Young said. “There was something special about this place. And I think that it was all potential. I guess the best thing that happened to me was to come back.”

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Eric Jones (25B) is from Short Hills, New Jersey and is studying finance, accounting and Spanish. Outside of the Wheel, Jones volunteers for SPARK Mentorship Group, works for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and plays on the club tennis team. Jones’ hobbies include basketball, biking, tennis, volunteering and traveling.