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Every Goodbye Ain't Gone : AN EASY BURDEN: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America. By Andrew Young (HarperCollins: $27.50, 550 pp.)

November 10, 1996|Julian Bond | Julian Bond is a professor in residence at American University and a lecturer in history at the University of Virginia

Andrew Young's story of his life, his work as Martin Luther King Jr.'s aide and his election to Congress in 1972 is an invaluable addition to the growing list of civil rights histories. He is only the second member of King's intimate circle to offer an inside view of the people who led the movement and, although his book reveals few secrets, it is a fascinating look at the civil rights struggle told by one of its heroes.

Young was present at the times and places America rid itself of legalized white supremacy. In the years after King's death, he broke ground as Georgia's first modern black congressman, the United States' first black ambassador to the United Nations and as Atlanta's second black mayor. "An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America" is a tell-some, not a tell-all, book that stands in sharp contrast to another insider account by the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy, "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down," which was notable for its highly publicized attack on King's philandering.

Abernathy's book revealed his deep-seated jealousy and resentment of the more polished and popular King, and in his book Young confirms that resentment. Indeed, he documents the fractiousness and high degree of personality conflicts among the staff members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization that King founded in 1957 and that Young joined in 1961. (In the interest of full disclosure, my name and photograph appear in Young's book; the author writes, sometimes scornfully, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the organization I worked for from 1960 through 1965.)

Young was the SCLC's self-styled conservative, a role King encouraged him to play. When the out-sized, competitive egos of staffers like James Bevel, Hosea Williams and Jesse Jackson threatened to destroy the organization's plans, for example, King depended on Young to ask hard questions and to challenge ridiculous ideas. It was a role for which Young's upbringing in a middle-class New Orleans family had prepared him. Like other black Southerners of his class and generation, he learned early how to negotiate between the black and white worlds.

Andrew J. Young was born in 1932. His father was a dentist who provided free dental services to poor black Louisianians. Since his father's office was in the front of the family home, Young was required to stop and greet every patient as he entered. He also ran errands to downtown New Orleans' dental supply houses, always wearing a shirt and tie to avoid charges that he had stolen the supplies he carried.

Years later, when he was King's negotiator, Young's suit and tie made him the subject of in-jokes among the bluejeaned SCLC staff. But the dress and demeanor he learned as his father's errand boy served him and the movement well in Birmingham, Charleston and elsewhere. To some extent, clothes and comportment hid a temper; Young relates an occasion when he wrestled Williams to the ground before the staff separated them and another time when he told a black political opponent that if he heckled him again, "I'll kick your ass!"

Young's description of the planning and design of King's campaigns--and the Poor People's Campaign and Charleston hospital workers' strike after King's death--give readers a privileged glimpse of the inner workings of one of the 1960s' most vital civil rights organizations as well as a profile of the characters, confusion and near-chaos about which outsiders could only speculate. As Young takes readers through his youth in New Orleans and his years at Howard University and Hartford Seminary, he describes a man-in-training for a civil rights movement that would explode in the late '50s and early '60s.

His genial personality, his early associations with whites, the knowledge he gained and his employment at the National Council of Churches were all preparation for the later role he would play as the rational man amid the SCLC's wild men. (The SCLC's chauvinist leadership tolerated few women.)

There are some disappointing errors in this book, however, that weaken the reader's confidence. For example, the freedom song "We'll Never Turn Back" was written in memory of Herbert Lee, killed in Mississippi in 1961, not George Lee, assassinated in Mississippi in 1955. Mrs. Harold Ickes was the widow of a Roosevelt administration official, not the wife of a Kennedy administration official. The Johnson administration didn't "get serious" about voting rights legislation in early 1965; days after his 1964 election, President Johnson had ordered the development of a new law to guarantee Southern blacks the right to vote.

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