Whitney M. Young, Jr., executive director of the National Urban League through the 1960s, was a leading U.S. civil rights leader during a turbulent era. Young helped propel the Urban League into the forefront of civil rights after assuming leadership in 1961. An editorial from the Omaha World-Herald (March 13, 1971) commented on his Omaha connections and said: “Whitney Young mixed idealism and practical good sense with an extraordinarily winning personality.”
Born in Kentucky in 1921, he received degrees from Kentucky State College and the University of Minnesota. He served as executive director of the Omaha Urban League in the early 1950s while teaching part-time at the University of Nebraska Graduate School of Social Work. He was one of the first black faculty members at the university. His accomplishments in Omaha included the addition of a nonsegregation clause to Omaha’s public housing code. He later taught at the Atlanta University School of Social Work and was a visiting scholar at Harvard.
Young was widely regarded as a moderate in the civil rights movement although he denied it. Among the most polished and articulate of black leaders, he served on a number of boards and commissions which sought to improve social, educational, and economic conditions for blacks. In 1963 he met with President Lyndon Johnson at the White House to launch an emergency public works program to put unemployed blacks to work. In 1968 President Johnson awarded Young the highest U.S. civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. In 1969 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Young died suddenly in 1971 at the age of 49 while attending a meeting of the African American Association in Lagos, Nigeria.