Friday, April 27, 2007

Flashback: With a TV Crew in Atlanta to Film the Second Andrew Young Campaign for Congress with Meager Prospects of His Winning. .

[Memories of fifty years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

Andrew Young whom I met briefly when he was in Chicago with Martin Luther King was—and is—an anomaly. There was—and is--a sweet reasonableness about him that is at great variance with Jesse Jackson…but that didn’t guarantee Young a controversy-free existence. First, there is no doubt whatsoever that Young is the better balanced person, not caught up in his destiny to lead blacks like Moses led the Jews. Second, unlike Jackson, he has an infectious sense of humor. Third, his communication is via conversation and is not at a stentorian pitch rhyming with heroic couplets. Fourth, Young comes from a solid middle-class background; his family life was secure (unlike Jackson’s), his education was more sedate and traditional. Fifth, more than Jackson, Young is a southerner: relaxed, jovial and down-to-earth.

Born in 1932 in New Orleans, he was the son of a prosperous dentist and a public school teacher. He was educated at middle-class schools (Dillard and Howard) where he received a Bachelor of Science and pre-med degree as he originally planned to follow his father’s career in dentistry. But he became more interested in religion as it applied to the civil rights movement in the 1950s. He received a second college degree, a Bachelor’s in Divinity from Hartford seminary in Connecticut in 1955. He became a minister of the United Church of Christ. Theology of the United Church of Christ is mainly free-form; there are few absolutes and no visible theological linkage aside from passion for “justice” which can range from lower prices in the grocery store to the possibilities of upward mobility. I have heard ministers of the United Church of Christ preach at great variance with one another; when I attended meetings in Atlanta during the 1972 time of our filming, more than anything else at the United Churches I heard conservative declamations against homosexuality with a forest of hands raised upright in affirmation. Yet the next minute there was remonstrations about civil rights with the same hands springing up.

Young explained that by using the southern term for black people used commonly by preachers. “Folk like to go to hear preachin’” he told me with a chuckle. “It doesn’t really matter much which way it goes if it has a good deal of passion to it.” His own preaching was commonsensical, relatively low-key. He sounded far more reasonable than the fire and brimstone preachers in other congregations—and I spent a good deal of time going to black churches both in his company and with others. Yet Andrew Young was an anomaly. He had the ability whether he understood it or not to say rather outrageous things to those whom he called “folk.” He sounded moderate but in no way was he moderate about the goal to gain civil rights. What he was moderate about was his understanding of the white power structure.

He had come to Atlanta after King’s death because he was rather burned out as a civil rights activist. He took a job as head of the city’s civil rights unit and soon proved his worth by being able to de-fuse difficulties which pleased the white leaders of Atlanta. He soon became the “reasonable black” that they wished the city had more of. To counter-balance that, when he decided to run for Congress the first time in 1970, he adopted a heavily pro-black posture—but it didn’t work. His militancy alienated much of the 57% white portion of the district. As he ruefully pointed out to me, 1970 was the year when the indications were most favorable for victory i.e. no presidential contest. Georgia was—and is—a heavily conservative state and if there was no presidential run, odds are a candidate could slip through.

But of course 1972 was not that year. George McGovern captured control of the national Democratic party whose repercussions exist to this day. A radical left posture taken by McGovern could only damage Young in the Georgia 2nd district. To make matters worse, Young had to compete with the likes of Julian Bond, a fiery student type who had been a hero of sorts to the Left having been the first black to be placed in nomination for vice president of the United States by an activist at the 1968 Democratic National Convention (which was withdrawn since Bond was under the requisite constitutional age). Moreover, Young had to please activists like John Lewis, another civil rights hero who had been badly beaten up by white southern thugs. Therefore Young developed a bipolar personality. To whites like me he sounded eminently reasonable; to blacks he could carry on the dialogue of black power with the best of them. This bipolarism got him into trouble later in his life—after his election and most notably with comments delivered in behalf of WalMart which became a lucrative client for him in 2003.

But that was far ahead of all of us.

“Y’know,” said Young with a slow smile when we arrived with our cameras, “I don’t really care if you got film in that thing…” pointing to one of our cameras, “or not. Your just showin’ up when I make a speech make folk think somethin’s important goin’ on.”

For our part, we thought that it was almost a certainty that we would be filming a political wake. But that wasn’t so bad, either by one standard. It could show how much work there was to do to get blacks to organize against a well-financed Republican party of Atlanta. Our director was the owner of a black film company named Bill Parrott who had never shot a documentary before but had specialized in commercials—so it was a time for learning for all of us. I had not done nothing in filming either—so I sketched out a scenario which would begin only when and if Young won the Democratic primary. That was agreeable and I flew back to Chicago—but on occasion I would drop in at Atlanta, meeting with Julian Bond, Young and John Lewis as well as some of the Republican types.

“You have to watch him,” said Bond to me. “He’ll slip away from us sure as spit and become a chalky before we know it. We’ll have to keep his feet to the fire.”

How he managed to get elected, next time.

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