Like many of her contemporaries, while in college filmmaker and journalist Bonnie Boswell openly wondered about the controversial path followed by her uncle, National Urban League executive director Whitney Young — a civil rights leader who wielded power not with incendiary rhetoric or militant mobilization, but by convincing white America's power elite that supporting black America was in its own best interest.
"I was always very close to him personally, but as an activist I felt the way many others did, that the nation was moving far too slowly on the path to racial justice and equality," Boswell said during a recent interview. "I thought he was being too moderate and accommodationist in his approach."
But Boswell later decided to see if indeed her feelings were correct. She discovered at a subsequent family gathering she didn't know nearly enough about what her uncle had or hadn't done, and decided to remedy that.
The result of more than a decade's worth of investigation can be seen in the comprehensive new documentary The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights. The film has its national debut Monday night on PBS (WNPT-Channel 8 at 9 p.m.) but will be shown Saturday at the downtown Nashville Public Library, 615 Church Street, at 3 p.m.
The Powerbroker is a joint production of ITVS Community Cinema, Nashville Public Television and the Nashville Public Library as part of its Black History Month celebration. The film contains extremely rare footage and interviews with many people across differing paths, from historian John Hope Franklin and Pulitzer Prize-winning author/historian Manning Marable to Dorothy Height, Ossie Davis, Donald Rumsfeld and Young's biographer Dennis C. Dickerson.
"My uncle was a social worker, someone whose specialty was bringing people together across the table," Boswell said. "He was able to go to people on Wall Street and convince them it was in their interest to help others. He was always seeking to improve the lot in life of others, whether that was through more access to education, better jobs, better salaries, whatever was possible. He was someone who believed in getting folks together and then having them work things out."
Young's background included being educated in a segregated school and serving in a segregated Army unit during World War II. During that time, he was successful in mediating disputes between white and black service members. That experience convinced him he could make a difference throughout society using those tools, and he earned a degree from the University of Minnesota in social work. He started working for various Urban League branches before taking over as executive director in 1961.
"I hope people will see the role he played in the March on Washington and the things that he accomplished while in that position," Boswell said. "A lot of what he did to advance the cause of civil rights isn't well known to contemporary audiences. He accomplished a lot, and he did so in a very different way from Dr. King and Malcolm X, though he very much felt that what they were doing was just as necessary. They were in the streets, he was in the board rooms."
Sadly, Young died during a 1971 drowning accident in Africa at 49. The film doesn't shy away from exploring the criticism he took from Dr. King for not publicly opposing the Vietnam War, or the harsh comments and even death threats he received from those in the Black Power movement who viewed him as an enemy. Ironically, as an insider, he confronted corporate and white political power on a daily basis, getting both access and winning gains that were substantial (if not widely publicized).
"Ossie Davis told me that he wouldn't tell any young person that they could be another Dr. King or Malcolm X, because they were so special and iconic," Boswell said. "But he would tell them they could be another Whitney Young, because they could do what he did to work for change within the system."
The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights screens 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, at Nashville Public Library, 615 Church Street; a reception precedes the film at 2:30 p.m. Both film and reception are free and open to the public. The film also premieres on WNPT-Channel 8 at 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 18.