11 May 2021

Building the Culture of Peace | Interview with Ambassador Andrew Young

Ambassador Young was born in 1932 in New Orleans. With Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he threw himself into the American Civil Rights Movement and fought against racism. He served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and became the first African-American U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter. He later served as mayor of Atlanta, Georgia. He has also devoted himself to economic development in Africa. In the interview, Ambassador Young discusses the spirit of nonviolence and the key to overcoming social divisions.

  • Peace
  • Gender equality & women's empowerment

Seikyo Shimbun: There are various social divisions in the world today, not to mention, racial discrimination being one of them. What do you think are the underlying causes of these problems?

Andrew Young: I think it’s the fear that comes from not knowing the other person. And this fear comes from differences between people. People feel safe with those in their group, but they are most likely to feel insecure with those who aren’t.

I have four children, and when my youngest daughter was just three years old, she crawled on my lap and said, “Daddy, me and you are brown. We are not yellow like Lisa and mommy.”

I don’t know where she got that idea. But one thing I can say is that even small children are sensitive to differences.

Dealing with discrimination means understanding and appreciating human differences. It takes much hard work, but the best place to put it into practice is home. Family members are the closest people to each other, so they can hurt you the most when disagreement occurs. That’s why it’s important to respect and accept each other’s opinions daily. Home is a “training ground” to overcome social divisions.

Humans can’t be a human alone. We nurture humanity through opening our hearts to others and sharing with others. Please don’t forget that we are a group, a family.

Andrew Young

I have many opportunities to give lectures at universities and other places, but one thing that bothers me when I see students these days is that they don’t talk to each other. So when I stand on the podium, I tell the students, “Everyone, please introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you. And shake hands.” This creates a new relationship.

Humans can’t be a human alone. We nurture humanity through opening our hearts to others and sharing with others. Please don’t forget that we are a group, a family.

SS: You fought against racism with Dr. King. Could you share with us one of the most memorable experiences with him?

AY: When Dr. King was imprisoned in 1962 in Albany, Georgia, I was a contact person. On my first visit to the prison to meet Dr. King, a white officer, not even lifting his head, shouted, “This little nig*** wants to meet that big nig***!”

He was a big man, just like a sumo wrestler and had a stick and a gun. I managed to talk to Dr. King that day and told him how the officer treated me with discriminatory language.

Dr. King then said, “Well, that’s your problem. You have to figure out how to get along with him.”

The next day, I tried something. I looked at his name tag and addressed him by name, and said, “Good morning! How are you, Sergeant Hamilton?”

He was surprised and seemed confused. Next, judging from his body type, I further said to him, “You had to play football somewhere.”

Then he smiled. From there, we had a lively conversation about his alma mater and local football players, which eventually helped us form a friend-like relationship.

About 20 years later, When I gave a speech in a town as an ambassador to the United Nations, the sergeant came to see me. He was dressed in a green jacket and white pants and lost so much weight that he looked like someone else.

He told me, “If you had not visited Albany and faced me, I would still be living the same life. I want to thank you today.”

Ambassador Young with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. / Photo Credit: Andrew J. Young Foundation, Inc

SS: It is deeply inspiring to learn that following Dr. King’s advice, you have formed a genuine friendship with the sergeant, regardless of ethnicity or social positions. What does “nonviolence,” the philosophy that supported the American Civil Rights Movement, mean to you?

AY: In Mahatma Gandhi’s words, nonviolence is the power of the soul. Humans are not a mere physical being but a spiritual being. We can obtain true victory through the power of spirit.

Let me tell you a story that symbolizes the spirit of nonviolence. It happened on a summer day in 1964 in St. Augustine, where we marched for weeks.

The Ku Klux Klan, which constantly targeted us with violence, started marching one evening. When the blacks saw this, instead of swearing back at them, they welcomed the group with a beautiful song, “I love all people with my heart.” This was genuinely nonviolent behavior.

As I think back, I grew up surrounded by diverse values. In my hometown of New Orleans, most of the children in my neighborhood were white, but all the students were black at school. I was from a middle-class family, but many other students were from poor families. Also, while most of the residents were Catholic, our family was Protestant. I always had to overcome barriers that separate people, such as race, economic and religious differences.

My father was a dentist, and he always taught me, “Don’t get emotional. Get smart.” He also said, “The power of spirit is the strongest weapon you have.”

Anger paralyzes human thinking. With the power of wisdom and spirit, man can overcome any difficulties. I am now 89 years old and still cherish my father’s advice to “get smart.”

SS: I could see how your childhood environment helped you nurture the power of spirit and wisdom. You never changed your belief to have sincere dialogues even after you joined politics.

AY: I was appointed as an ambassador to the United Nations under the Carter administration and visited South Africa in 1977. At the time, apartheid oppressed black people and deprived their human dignity.

I met with many black leaders, but I didn’t have a chance to talk to white officials. So I asked, “Who is the most racist in the government?” People strongly opposed my idea, but I decided that this was the person I must talk to. I immediately made an appointment to meet him in person.

When I got to his house, he didn’t even say hello and showered me with various questions in a blaming tone. The last question was particularly interesting. He said, “How long do you think it will take until bloodbath happens?”

I said, “What bloodbath? I don’t think that would happen.” He raised his voice and replied, “How can you say that? Black people in this country will surely rise and kill all of us.”

At that moment, I saw what was deep inside him. His “hatred” toward black people came from his “fear.” This is what created apartheid.

I patiently explained to him that there is a precedent in America where blacks and whites have tried to live together, and that the government wants to support a peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa. I gave him President Carter’s phone number and left his house.

After that, he seemed to have called the president. Eventually, a meeting was arranged between him and the Vice President of the United States, which led to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the democratization of South Africa.

SS: Thank you so much for sharing such an important story. Your dialogue of courage paved the way for peace and coexistence. What actions can we start in our lives?

AY: The human mind is delicate, and we tend to create “barriers” in our hearts. That’s why I’ve been trying to talk to many people. By doing so, I feel that I, too, have overcome barriers in my heart.

It’s not difficult at all. All you need is a smile and hello. From these two actions, we can create communities. The barriers that divide people exist in racial differences and many more, including between men and women. To break down these barriers, we have to try to know those who are different from us. Even if they seem hostile in the current world order, we have to understand and respect each other. This is the task that we must accomplish. In any case, humanity is what connects us all together deep down. Let us firmly believe in this and work together for a better future

This interview was published in Japanese in the Seikyo Shimbun, a daily newspaper of the Soka Gakkai in Japan, on 11 May 2021.