Former South African president Nelson Mandela has received much-deserved praise following his death on Dec.5 at the age of 95. South Africa could have sunk into chaos and a bloody civil war with Mandela’s rise to power following 27 years of imprisonment and the end of apartheid. Instead, he preached reconciliation and forgiveness, not vengeance. For that, the world can be grateful.
Two days earlier, I was with a man whose own journey has been one of forgiveness. His name is Andrew Young. He is the former mayor of Atlanta, ambassador to the United Nations, an ordained minister and, most important, a great human being.
In the segregated South, Andy Young marched side-by-side with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and endured more than his share of abuse and death threats. He witnessed the worst in human nature. Like Mandela, he came out on the other side of that experience focused on the potential of the future and not the sins of the past.
Ironically, part of his reward has been a lawsuit filed by Dr. King’s sons, Martin III and Dexter, charging that he used footage of their father in a documentary without permission and should be removed from the King Center’s board of directors. Shame on those two ingrates. If Andy Young hadn’t been where he has been, they wouldn’t be where they are.
Some of my most cherished times are the early morning coffees I enjoyed with Young during my days at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, an organization he served as co-chairman. His stories of his days in the civil rights struggle were priceless, and they were told with no tinge of acrimony and no shortage of humor. It was easy to tell that while he took those hard days seriously, he didn’t take himself that way.
At a small gathering at the Bank of Vinings in suburban Atlanta recently, I got to see this good man again after a long absence. He is 81 now, a bit slower and a few pounds heavier, but still possessed of the same wit and charisma.
One of my favorite stories about Andy Young -- and I have a bunch of them -- concerns when he was invited to a town hall meeting in Atlanta sponsored by a national television network. The host asked him to say a few words. When the event was over, a young reporter from the local newspaper, who obviously had not done her homework, came up to him and said, “Mr. Young, what do you do?”
Andy asked her how old she was. She told him and he said, “When you were born, I was mayor of Atlanta.”
I related to the group what was perhaps the defining moment of the 1996 Olympic Games. When the decision was made to reopen Centennial Olympic Park after the tragic bombing, there was a lot of internal debate over how to go about showing proper respect for the tragedy in which two lives had been lost and yet get back to the excitement and enthusiasm that had been a part of the games prior to the bombing. On one thing everyone agreed: Andy Young would be the man to do it.
On the day of the ceremony as he was about to go on stage, he pulled out an envelope with two names written on the back: the two victims. One was a young mother from Albany, the other a Turkish cameraman who had died of a heart attack. Andy asked me how to pronounce the cameraman’s name. With that, he put the envelope back in his pocket and proceeded to make one of the most inspirational speeches I have ever heard. Our mission had been accomplished.
After listening to me tell the story, Young confessed that he doesn’t write speeches. In his first church in a small South Georgia town, he said his parishioners warned him never to preach to them from a written text. “They said it had to come from the heart,” he told our luncheon group, “or not at all.” It was a lesson he learned well.
When he learned of Mandela’s death, Andrew Young said, “Mandela believed that you could only defeat apartheid through love and understanding.”
The same thing can be said of Andy Young. For all that he has accomplished in his illustrious life, perhaps his greatest legacy is that he holds no grudges. The man just doesn’t know how to hate -- and I love him for that.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.