As part of the festivities celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, first lady Michelle Obama hosted a special student screening at the White House of The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight For Civil Rights, a documentary that chronicles the life and achievements of this little-known civil rights great.
While Young spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial minutes before King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, very few people recognize the name of an activist many credit with creating meaningful connections between everyday African-Americans, white mainstream society, and more radical black political groups.
“It is important to remember that history, and important to remember what went into making change,” Mrs. Obama said of Young’s contributions.
Remembering unsung heroes
The documentary was produced and written by Young’s niece, award-winning journalist Bonnie Boswell. Exploring Young’s life of activism after overcoming a youth spent in segregated Kentucky, the film shows his rise to become the leader of the National Urban League in 1961. He significantly grew the number of chapters of the organization during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
The first lady went on to explain that she learned about Young only after attending a high school bearing his name. Mrs. Obama graduated from Chicago’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in 1981.
“There are so many unsung heroes in history whose impact we still feel today,” she told the assembled crowd in a screening room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. Noting that for every Dr. King or Malcolm X, there is a Whitney Young, a Dorothy Height, or a Roy Wilkins, she encouraged them to appreciate activists who did not attain significant acclaim.
The first lady also stressed the need to remember average people who made important sacrifices, yet whose names will never be known: maids who walked home after days of toil during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, protesters who faced fire hoses and biting dogs, and parents who taught their children to stand tall and dream big at a time when both things were difficult for African-Americans.
“The thing I want you all to remember is that we are here because of their struggle. I am here because of their struggle,” the first lady intoned.
Stressing education, giving back
She also asked students to be prepared to give back exactly the way their predecessors did to pave the way for them to be where they are today. “We are counting on you all to be ready to take the helm and be agents of change, because there is a lot of work to do,” the first lady said.
Citing the example of Young as a model of professional preparation, the first lady said being the best requires working hard and being prepared to take advantage of opportunities.
Neither she nor President Obama ever believed they would attain their current level of achievement, “but we prepared ourselves,” Mrs. Obama said. As the key to their growth was education, the first lady asked students to make education the most important thing in their lives.
“It ain’t rapping, it ain’t dancing,” she said of alluring distractions to many youths. She urged the adolescents to learn to read and write to the best of their ability, rather than dissipating their potential.
Being dedicated to greatness
“You have to put in the time and energy to be great,” Mrs. Obama emphasized, stating in addition, “You have to be ready all the time.”
A panel convened after the screening included, David J. Johns, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, and Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League.
The afternoon of film and conversations was organized by the first lady and White House staff in partnership with the Department of Education as part of a series of White House initiatives aimed at improving educational outcomes for African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and more groups.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.