Shortfalls of the civil rights movement and the day I met Andrew Young

In 2002, every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I would leave before sunrise to get to class for 8 AM only to be greeted by a professor who looked like someone’s vinyl-collecting, pipe-smoking and Mr. Roger’s vest wearing uncle.  He was brilliant in a corky scientist kind of way and not a morning person.  He was also Black.

Had I known I would be able to count my Black professors on one hand over the years I would’ve likely treasured these moments.  Instead, I gave him the standard dose of respect I would give anyone at 8 AM in the morning.

On one particular day, he ranted in an intentionally-provocative tone that “the civil rights movement was a failure” for black people because it lacked a sustainable economic plan.  Using the famous Montgomery bus boycott as an example, he applauded the work done to get the word out, broker negotiations with the government and to propel the greater movement into the national spotlight.  But it was his belief that not enough was done to ensure black folk could still get to work, that not enough new jobs were created since many would get laid-off and that opportunities to climb out of the under-class were still not extended to blacks once it was all over.

To him, this was the movement’s Achilles heel and the first time I’d heard anyone question the pristine narrative of this moment in American history.  At the time, I was the lone business student surrounded by friends who studied history, art, education and policy studies.   This professor’s critique showed me that it was possible and necessary to build a bridge between my  “business life” and the personal causes I believed in. Prior to this, I saw them as two distinct parts of my life that hid from one another.

I was now more committed to study business more intently despite the common misconception that doing so was a self-serving endeavor.  Someone has to pay the bail money, keep the books, ensure people are fed and create jobs so the frontline solders can feed their families .  These are all problems only money can solve.

It’s been 16 years since I took that class and 60+ years since the civil rights movement.  Naturally, it’s worth asking —have things improved?  Was my professor right?  It’s impossible to answer such a heavy question in one breath but if I had to; the answer would be, no.  The fact remains that in practically every relevant socio-economic statistical category, Black Americans are still lagging far behind other ethnic groups; especially White Americans. That is not equality.

But rather than delve into a history lesson about racist housing and lending policies, discriminatory pricing, biased hiring and domestic terrorism that destroyed black wealth over hundreds of years, I’d rather tell you about that one time I got to speak privately with Andrew Young.

For those who don’t know, Andrew Young is an icon, a pillar of the civil rights movement, right-hand man to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, former mayor of Atlanta and former Ambassador to the United Nations. He was asked to speak at a celebration of MLK at KSU and the team planning the event asked me, as an alumni and former student leader to introduce him to the audience.  I accepted the invitation and began thinking through how best to find the words to describe a man of his stature.

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On the day of the event, the organization planning it held a private meet-and-greet so that students could have a “fireside chat” with Mr. Young. I was invited to attend as well. It began awkwardly because the students were either woefully unprepared with questions or too nervous to hold an engaging conversation with Mr. Young.  Either way, as the older “young man” in the room, I took this as an opportunity to have a private conversation with him about my own plans and hopes to make a positive impact on our community.

I began by talking about my background, work experience, MBA journey, entrepreneurial interests and immediate plans of starting a foundation to fund study abroad programs for under-privileged minority students.  I knew that Mr. Young had considerable international experience and hoped he might be excited to hear about my global ideas and interests.  In the back of my mind, I imagined him introducing me to someone on his team that would allow me to fast track my plans and change the trajectory of my life. Nope.  I wouldn’t say he crapped on my plans buuuut he certainly “redirected” me by sharing refreshingly honest stories about his own life.

He spoke about continually falling on hard times, trying to find the money to send his children to college, only having a few good suits to wear and about how he was still grinding to make ends meet after decades of giving his life to public service and “the cause”.  In particular, he mentioned something along the lines of “filling your cup…and then filling it againbefore you put the burden of the movement on your back.  He basically gave me the flight attendant-oxygen mask speech.

There was no wiggle room in his words.  He repeated himself a few times, locking eyes with me in an effort to be absolutely certain that I heard him and would take heed to his warnings.  His rationale was simple–we need more black people in business because movements can’t grow on love, fury and faith alone…they need funding. The idea of me “jumping ship” to dedicate my life to the cause was foolish to him.  If I were to abandon the inroads I’d already made, he feared that I would become just another broke, burned out activist with a coulda shoulda story.

Ever since then, the pressure I carried to play the role others played in the community faded away.  Instead, I focused on doing what only I could do and honing my unique set of skills to support my causes. Yes, I could teach kids how to play basketball, how to cook and write poetry…but then who would teach them about business and personal finance.  The unfortunate reality is that there aren’t many Black men in positions of power in business.  The few that exist are pulled in multiple directions at once and don’t have much time to give.  And if we’re being honest, others are so drunk off their salaries and fancy titles that giving back is the farthest thing from their minds.

At the close of the event, as I approached the desk where Mr. Young was signing and selling copies of his latest book, he looked up and said something like “Young man, aren’t you the one that introduced me today?  Put that money away!  That was the best introduction I’ve ever had”. Minutes later, his assistant echoed the same sentiment and expressed gratitude for my introduction. Considering he’d likely heard hundreds of introductions in his tenure, I believe his compliment was sincere.

That day, I got a free, signed book and permission to build generational wealth without concerns of being selfish from someone who had given his life to public service. Inscribed in the front cover, he left short, simple and powerful words for me…”Julien, stay strong and keep the faith”; so that’s what I’m doing.

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