Whitney Young Jr., The Boardroom Hero of the Civil Rights Movement

A new documentary honors Whitney Young Jr., an unsung player in the civil rights movement. Nina Strochlic reports.

Frank Hurley/New York Daily News Archive, via Getty

One of the civil rights movement’s most influential leaders at the time is almost virtually unknown today—and his niece is intent on changing that. A new documentary follows the life of Whitney Young Jr., a behind-the-scenes powerhouse who used his boardroom finesse to help desegregate the boardroom and the classroom during the turbulent 1960s. Young was a trusted adviser to Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, and the executive director of the National Urban League from 1961 through his death in 1971, making what had been a small and cautious operation into one of leading organs of the movement.

His niece, journalist Bonnie Boswell, spent 10 years making The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights, a tribute to the boardroom leader’s achievements that premiers Monday night on PBS, as part of Independent Lens’ Black History Month programming.

“I wanted to make this film because I wanted to inspire people,” Boswell told The Daily Beast. “Whitney Young was a man who built bridges between rich and poor, black and white during one of the most turbulent times in our history. I think he should be recognized, not just as a civil rights leader or an African American leader, but an American leader who worked to help our country live up to her ideals.”

The documentary, which Boswell executive produced, follows Young’s life from rural Kentucky, where his parents instilled an activist spirit in him, to his seat at the table with presidents and Fortune 500 CEOs. Young was a behind-the-scenes player who never earned the prominence of other movement leaders, and drew criticism from members of the Black Power movement, who called him an “Uncle Tom” and accused him of being too engrained in the white establishment.

But today’s prominent African-American leaders say they are indebted to Young’s work. The movie is packed with historians, scholars, and leaders of all races, including Howard Zinn and Donald Rumsfeld, discussing the legacy Young left behind. Kenneth Chennault, the CEO of American Express, credits him with paving “the road to my success in corporate America,” while Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls Young “a prophet.”

“I am not anxious to be the loudest voice or the most popular,” Young once said. “But I would like to think that at a crucial moment, I was an effective voice of the voiceless, an effective hope of the hopeless.” He may not have wished for popularity, but The Powerbroker aims to reveal his voice and efforts to a country that still benefits from the results of his persuasive activism.