ATLANTA – In the lead-up to his 90th birthday, civil rights icon Andrew Young delivered a sermon on Wednesday that lamented the war in Ukraine and “rancor” in the world, but also expressed hope for peace.
The sermon was the first of a string of events this week to mark Young's birthday and continue his long fight for equity and inclusion.
The former congressman, United Nations ambassador and Atlanta mayor wore a tie with the colors of the Ukrainian flag and said Russia’s invasion of its neighbor kept him up at night with worry for the world.
Young was beaten while marching for civil rights in 1964 and was beside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when King was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39.
But he said he had never “known so much rancor, so much hatred, so much bitterness, so much fear, so much potential calamity” in the world. Still, he offered a message of hope, citing moments during the civil rights movement when King was ready to declare defeat only to experience great success.
“What I have seen in these 90 years is time and time and time again we come to the edge of a cliff and an angel comes in our path and rises up, and we rise up and find ourselves in a new power, in a new spirit,” Young said from a podium at Atlanta's First Congregational Church, his home church since 1961.
The service kicked off four days of events that include a walk for unity and a gala to raise funds for economic development and food security. The theme of Young’s birthday is “peace and reconciliation,” and organizers say one of their goals is to inspire younger generations.
Young said Wednesday he hoped some people are “awakened by the tragedies around them.”
“I hope that our nation can heal the class division, the race division and the difference between the haves and the have nots and all of the dividing factors that separate us from us and sometimes let us forget that we’re all the children of the creator of Heaven and Earth,” he said.
As he nears 90, Young has drawn inspiration from King, his late friend and colleague.
During the civil rights struggle, King would say that “‘we probably won’t make it to 50,’” Young recalled in a January opinion column in The Atlanta Journal Constitution. “‘But those who do have got to make sure to make it to 100, because there’s a whole lot of work to be done.’”
Young is among the last surviving members of King’s inner circle. He served as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group that King founded.
Young went on to become the first Black person from Georgia sent to Congress since Reconstruction when he was elected to the U.S. House in 1972. President Jimmy Carter later appointed him ambassador to the United Nations, where he served until his resignation in 1979 amid public uproar over a clandestine meeting with members of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
As mayor of Atlanta in the 1980s, Young is credited with boosting the city’s stature. Atlanta hosted the Democratic Convention in 1988 and then the Summer Olympics in 1996. Young used his international reputation to help Atlanta beat out other cities for the games.
“There would have not been the Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia, had it not been for Andrew Young,” said Billy Payne, who led the committee responsible for organizing the event. Payne added, “He saw in the Olympic effort the ability to bring our city together in a way that we could serve as a shining example for the rest of the world.”
Payne spoke on a Zoom call in February that was organized to promote Young’s birthday events. Ernie Suggs, author of an upcoming book about Young, was also on the call and described Young as the type of person who “is everywhere, knows everybody.”
“Each chapter of his life can be a whole life,” Suggs said.
The 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) walk will begin at Centennial Olympic Park — a legacy of the 1996 games — in downtown Atlanta on Thursday. A statue of Young will be unveiled as part of that event.
On Friday, an exhibit about Young’s life will open at Millennium Gate Museum, also in Atlanta. Suggs’ book — “The Many Lives of Andrew Young” — will also be available for sale. It includes stories Young shared, photos and an introduction by Carter.
The gala will take place on Saturday, Young’s actual birthday.
Young has acknowledged thinking about death as he approaches 90. On a podcast in January, he told former Obama administration strategist David Axelrod that King would often talk — and joke — about death, which King called the “ultimate democracy.”
“He said, ‘You don’t have anything to say about where you die or how you die,’” Young said. “‘Your only choice is what is it you’re willing to give your life for.’”