Traveling With Martin
Ambassador Andrew Young remembers Martin Luther King Jr., his friend and mentor, and what he viewed as roads to peace.
by Jim Hackler
TO THE WORLD, Martin Luther King Jr. was the leader of the American civil-rights movement whose nonviolent approach to change continues to inspire. What many people don’t know is that Dr. King also believed that the simple act of travel has the power to enlighten. He himself, to deliver more than 2,500 speeches, traveled over 6 million miles from 1957 until his assassination in 1968.
Continuing to uphold his legacy is Andrew Young, a trusted aide and friend of Dr. King’s. Young is the co-founding principal and chairman of GoodWorks International, a global advisory firm for economic development in Africa and the Caribbean. The 75-year-old Young is also one of the first African Americans from the South elected to Congress since Reconstruction. He is the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter, two-term mayor of Atlanta and co-chair of the city’s committee for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.
Sky sat down with Ambassador Young in his Atlanta office to discuss his memories of Dr. King and his own thoughts on how travel broadens our horizons.
Ambassador Young says of Dr. King, “He believed in travel as raising people’s cultural awareness and, in so doing, reducing their stereotypes and prejudice.”
SKY: What did Martin Luther King Jr. mean when he referred to travel as a “pacifying force”?
ANDREW YOUNG: He believed in travel as raising people’s cultural awareness and, in so doing, reducing their stereotypes and prejudice. When you travel around the world and get to know people better, you are far less likely to go to war with them.
SKY: Was he ever able to use travel for peacekeeping?
AY: One of the things he dreamed of doing was getting enough tourists to go to Israel and Jordan together. We signed up 5,000 people to go with him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September 1967. It was Dr. King’s objective to have a group so big that it couldn’t [be entirely accommodated in] either Israel or Jordan. Tourism was seen as a way of helping people prosper together, and begin to cooperate—and it worked. The Israel Tourist Board and the Jordanian Tourist Board agreed to build an amphitheater by the Sea of Galilee. They agreed to open the gates [on the border] to allow our people to go back and forth between the two countries. Martin Luther King Jr. and a choir were going to preach and sing from a boat in the Sea of Galilee.
SKY: What happened?
AY: The Six-Day War broke out [armed conflict in June 1967 between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria]. We could never get that group going again.
SKY: How has travel had an impact on you and your family?
AY: My middle daughter’s son was 15 when he went to Malawi, and I say he left a whiny, runny-nosed brat. He worked with real people in the fields and played soccer with children who used a rolled-up bag of trash. He went back the next year with 2,000 soccer uniforms and 100 soccer balls and organized a soccer league. He turned into a world citizen. So I think nothing does our young people more good than travel to other parts of the world.
SKY: How has travel affected you and your family?
AY: You can’t really appreciate what it means to be an American until you go somewhere and see how others live. I’m not just talking about Africa—I’m talking about Europe, I’m talking about Asia, the Middle East. There’s almost no place in the world where the quality of life that ordinary people enjoy can match what we have generated here. But we don’t appreciate it—we take it for granted. And until you see how other people struggle with clean water, with food, with the turmoil of their environment, you don’t really appreciate what has been created here.
SKY: Why do you see tourism as important to developing countries?
AY: War comes out of poverty and suffering and gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” and I think nothing builds up an economy easier and quicker than tourism. I see travel to Africa as bringing money to ordinary people in larger volumes than you could ever get through The World Bank or through foreign aid from governments, even through private investment. I think Delta’s flying to new places in Africa is going to make possible more peace and development in this century than we’ve ever seen before.
SKY: What have been your impressions of Africa?
AY: There’s no place in Africa that I haven’t been awestruck. I’ve been to 53 African countries, and I’ve been met by wonderful people. And phenomenal scenery. The Sahara Desert . . . Morocco and the continent’s ancient souks [markets] and mosques.
SKY: Do you find that people in other countries are aware of Martin Luther King Jr. and his work?
AY: There are very few people around the world that are as well-known, and well-loved, as Martin Luther King Jr. He’s one of the most inspiring individuals that this nation produced.
SKY: When did you realize he had become such an iconic figure? AY: There had been 60 unsolved bombings in Birmingham, Alabama. There were people being beaten up on the street for no good reason. Martin said, “We’ve got to take on Birmingham.” A group of black leaders came to meet with him to call off the demonstrations because we had several hundred people in jail, and we didn’t have bond money to bail them out. They were asking him to stop the demonstrations and to leave town and go around speaking to try to raise money to get these people out. He got up and went into the next room and in about five minutes, he came back with his overalls on, and he said, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, I know you mean well, but I cannot leave with these people in jail. The only thing I can do is go join them.”
He wrote “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” [on April 16, 1963] using borders of a newspaper, backs of envelopes—he even wrote on toilet tissue. The letter was Martin Luther King’s answer as to why it was important for us to put an end to racial segregation, and how it had created an unreal and unjust relationship between people who were black and white.
It defined for the world what the struggle was, and I think people decided because it was a nonviolent struggle, it was something the world could get behind.
SKY: What was he like as a person?
AY: He was always laughing, always joking, always teasing. He was just about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, and in some ways a very ordinary person. In fact, some of his teachers did not consider him one of the brightest and best. I like for people to see his papers where he made a C in public speaking. [Laughs]
SKY: What will the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., mean to you?
AY: Martin Luther King Jr. brings another message to the Mall—that it’s possible for us to live together and avoid violence. It’s a memorial to nonviolent social change, and the fact that it sits between the monuments to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, all of whom were great men whom I admire, but all of whom had to resort to violence in order to achieve their ends.
SKY: What do you see as your own legacy?
AY: I hope to be around another decade or so to figure that out. [Laughs] I don’t look back, and I don’t look too far forward. If I can focus on this day, something will open up tomorrow that I could not have imagined or planned. I would call that living by the Spirit, because I never planned or thought in advance about any of the things that I’ve done.
I never intended to go into politics. I tried to get everybody else to run for Congress. I wanted to stay out and help run the campaigns, but I was drafted to run for Congress. And I didn’t want to go to the United Nations, but President Jimmy Carter said, “I need you at the United Nations because you were with Martin Luther King Jr., and nobody will take us seriously on human rights unless they have someone with your human rights credentials.”
After that, I really planned to settle down and do some writing, but I ended up with a company [GoodWorks International] that spans half the world and employs about 60 people. We now have offices in the Ivory Coast, Ghana, two in Nigeria, Angola, Tanzania, Rwanda and one in Seoul, Korea. We’re doing a series of movies [the first to be released is Rwanda Rising] that will show things, particularly in Africa, that people will be surprised to see.
Jim Hackler is a writer based in Atlanta who was a teenager traveling in Egypt when Andrew Young was his country’s ambassador to the United Nations.