Whitney M. Young,Jr., who transformed the National Urban League (NUL) from an employment service into a major civil rights organization, was bom in Lincoln Ridge, Ken¬ tucky. He studied at the all-black Lincoln Model School and its higher institution, the Lincoln Institute, which was headed by his father.

He went to Kentucky State College and graduated with an M.A. in 1947, the same year he joined the St. Paul, Minnesota, branch of the National Urban League. By 1950, Young was the executive director of the National Urban League branch in Omaha, Nebraska.

The National Urban League was formed by the 1911 merger of three separate organi¬ zations—the Committee for Improving the Industrial Conditions of Negroes in New York, the National League for the Protection of Colored Women and the Committee on Urban Conditions.

Formed to help integrate newly arrived African-Americans into the society of bigger cities, the National Urban League organized programs to introduce immigrants to employers. Focused on urban social concerns, the organization worked at finding jobs for people, training them, and mediating with white businesses willing to hire black employees.

In 1961, when Young was appointed executive director of the National Urban League, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (see no. 91) was already active. The civil rights movement was just waiting for a catalyst— a woman like Rosa Parks (see no. 72), who was riding on a bus in Alabama and refused to give her seat to a white passenger.


When Rosa Parks’ act of resistance set off the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, the National Urban League was forced to decide whether it would remain an autonomous organi¬ zation or become one that merged with the mass of Americans ris¬ ing for civil liberty. It was Young’s leadership that turned the National Urban League into one of the major supporters of the March on Wash¬ ington in 1963.

With Young in charge, the National Urban League went through a transition that enlarged its scope of influence consid¬ erably. Persuading the organization’s lead¬ ership to employ mass protest as a tool for social engineering, Young added its mem¬ bers to the pool of national supporters: “The Urban League will be valueless to responsible institutions in our society if it does not maintain communication with and the respect of other responsible Negro organizations and the respect of the masses of Negro citizens.”

Young remained executive director until his death in 1971, which occurred while he was attending the African-American Dia¬ logue in Nigeria. He is remembered as a man who could build bridges, and as Nancy J. Weiss said, “Young enlarged the econom¬ ic opportunities available to black Ameri¬ cans….He gave powerful whites in the pri¬ vate sector a means of comprehending the problems of the ghetto and, in the most suc¬ cessful instances, made some contribution toward their amelioration….”