WASHINGTON D.C. — Just before the March on Washington in 1963, President John F. Kennedy summoned six top civil rights leaders to the White House to talk about his fears that civil rights legislation he was moving through Congress might be undermined if the march turned violent.
Whitney Young Jr. cut through the president's uncertainty with three questions: "President Kennedy, which side are you on? Are you on the side of George Wallace of Alabama? Or are you on the side of justice?"
One of those leaders, John Lewis, later a longtime congressman from Georgia, tells the story of Young's boldness in "The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights," a documentary airing during Black History Month on the PBS series "Independent Lens" and shown in some community theaters.
In the civil rights struggle, Young was overshadowed by his larger-than-life peer, Martin Luther King Jr. But Young's penetration of white-dominated corporate boardrooms and the Oval Office over three administrations was critical to the movement. Working with leaders within the system, including three presidents, made him a target of criticism by those who wanted a more aggressive path to racial equality.
An appreciation for what Young brought to the movement came after his death in Nigeria in 1971 at age 49. But it was not sustained, said Dennis Dickerson, author of "Militant Mediator: Whitney M. Young Jr."
"He should not be diminished," said Dickerson, a Vanderbilt University history professor who also appears in the film.
A number of schools and facilities have been named for Young. First lady Michelle Obama graduated from a Chicago high school named for him. But his role in economic issues surrounding civil rights has not gotten just due, said Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, an organization Young led as executive director from 1961 to 1971. During his tenure the organization greatly expanded.