The Good Wife Works – On Whitney Young: our Minnesota national treasure



Elizabeth Ellis Square

We must deal with ourselves, but you must deal with us, too.”  — Eugene Robinson, Washington Post Pulitzer Prize winner


Seeing The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s fight for civil rights, a documentary film by Bonnie Boswell, prompted me to go back to read a second book on Young, Whitney Young: Militant Mediator, by his official biographer Dennis Dickerson.

Whitney Moore Young was born 7/31/21 in Kentucky and drowned in Nigeria 3/11/71. Ramsey Clark saw Young’s arm go up twice in the water that day as if in trouble and pulled him out. The two autopsies that were performed disagreed on the cause of Young’s death.

As head of the National Urban League, “His organization effectively lobbied the House and Senate to pass the Civil Rights Act(s) of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

Young worked with President(s) John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. “LBJ adored Whitney Young,” according to James Farmer, leader of CORE. President Nixon spoke at Young’s funeral.

Young was a “responsible organizer” and “broker” with Black and White “access” into grassroots Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie philanthropist foundations in conjunction with that era’s Community Chest work on social concerns and economicissues.

Young’s intent, as an integrationist, to “pull blacks into mainstream as participants in every facet of American society” gave him the pejorative of “Whitey.” He did not want Blacks kept separate or excluded and saw slavery as a “crippling legacy.”

Young was the middle ground, the preferred negotiator. The Black power advocates’ “seeming radicalism made [Young] a more palatable negotiator than some of the other black leaders.” The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., SCLC, was seen as a “moralist;” SNCC, as “unmanageable and confrontational.” The League was seen as “reasonable and moderate.”

Young compared the student protestors of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to the Boston Harbor “Tea Party” revolt of 1773, saying, “They sought a cup of untaxed tea. The students sought a cup of unsegregated coffee.”

Young attended the University of Minnesota from 1946 to 1950 and wrote his master’s thesis on the history of the St. Paul Urban League. He “observed and compared” both Minneapolis’ and St. Paul’s Urban Leagues. Young was interviewed by Carl Rowan for the St. Paul Recorder.    He was considered a “polished and sophisticated leader” when he left Minnesota in 1950.

While in Minnesota as a community activist, “Young’s temperate posture and skillful use of white allies persuaded Midwest elites to yield to black demands for jobs, education and housing.”

S. Vincent Owens, born 1909 in Kansas, executive director of the St. Paul Urban League, was a man “from whom Young learned much.” Owens considered Young a “legitimate and credible leader and an “exceptional young man with a lot to offer.”

Young spoke at Peace Evangelical and Reform Church, St. Paul, and the author mentions St. James AME and the Rev. Benjamin Nelson Moore, who served on the St. Paul Urban League as well. Young’s wife Margaret (nee Buckner) attended Pilgrim Baptist Church, St. Paul. She lived at Phyllis Wheatly House, a social settlement in a predominantly Black section of Minneapolis before Young arrived here. Young was accused of betraying Black congregations for his interest in the Unitarian church.

In Minnesota, “Young gained much satisfaction from his ability to lead and mobilize middle-class blacks.” In 1950 St. Paul, “the black population was 5,666, a miniscule percentage of the total population of 311,291.” Young visited White groups “to advocate for black advancement.” The author lauds the University of Minnesota for its “tradition of racial liberalism” and the influence of the governor and Minneapolis’ Mayor Humphrey.

For those interested in more Minneapolis and St. Paul detail, we recommend Chapter 3, pages 35-55. As of February 2011, the St. Paul Urban League’s operations were suspended “due to severe fiscal and other mismanagement.” Willie Mae and William Wilson attended a hearing in Ramsey County District Court Friday, July 27, 2012, on a settlement to save the St. Paul Urban League,” according to a Pioneer Press story, “St. Paul Urban League avoids foreclosure in court settlement.”


Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to