Former U.N. ambassador Young stresses forgiveness, nonviolence at Mercer talk

Former ambassador Young stresses forgiveness, nonviolence

jmink@macon.comSeptember 20, 2013 

Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young remembers a time when he was convinced the Ku Klux Klan would march to his front door.

He was prepared to talk to the leader, but he asked his wife to sit in the window and point a rifle at the Klansman. She refused.

“She said, ‘Don’t you forget that under that sheet is the heart of a child of God,’ ” Young said.

It’s one anecdote that sums up his message Friday to hundreds gathered at Mercer University, where he spoke to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of Mercer’s integration.

While this year marks 50 years since a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing and other events spurred by racial hatred, Young’s message was one of forgiveness, nonviolence and reconciliation.

It’s a message that not only applies to past violence but also to present global events, he said.

“Whether we believe it or not, this is one world,” said Young, who also was mayor of Atlanta and played a key role in the civil rights movement as a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr.

Before the event, Young talked about Syria, where reports of chemical weapons use has spurred controversy and threats of military force from the United States. Now, the United Nations has developed a resolution that calls for Syria to hand over its weapons.

“What’s going on in Syria is a violent process that the president and others are trying to transform to a nonviolent diplomatic process,” Young said.

Young knows about nonviolent resolutions. He has been a diplomat since a young age, when he was confronted not just with racial tensions but also with class problems. He remembers attending a segregated school, where he was bullied for having lunch money.

“To find a way to get along with those ... who resented my privileges and resented the fact that my parents had education that they didn’t have, was where I became a diplomat,” he said.

He went from making peace among his classmates to helping build bridges among nations.

“The world cannot survive unless we bring the world together,” he said.

Young remembers perhaps the most bizarre Thanksgiving he celebrated, which turned into a powerful lesson in forgiveness.

He was invited to celebrate the holiday in South Africa, where he expected a traditional gathering of food and a few family members. Instead, he found himself in the middle of a football field, where about 10,000 people gathered.

About 20 men, who had been imprisoned for treason, invited everyone responsible for their imprisonment to celebrate Thanksgiving with them. The men’s sentences had been reduced, and they offered thanks not only to their attorneys but to the prosecutors, judge and others.

The men were not angry but genuinely wanted to offer forgiveness. In fact, they thanked their captors for allowing them to spend “10 years in Nelson Mandela University,” Young said, referring to the prison where Mandela was held. “We need a bit more of that spirit.”

Young’s wife embodied that spirit years ago, when she refused to point a gun at another human, regardless of his actions, Young said. The KKK eventually left town without direct confrontation with Young, but he still remembers the lesson he learned during that time.

“Healing requires mercy,” he said. “And mercy comes from understanding.”

Michelle Currie, a Mercer employee in student affairs, said the speech was not only moving but related to Mercer’s integration celebration, as it reflected on the past and looked toward the future.

“It was very inspirational and eye-opening,” she said.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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