Ambassador Andrew Young is a civil rights legend, who was a close friend and advisor of Martin Luther King Jr. In 1972, when he was elected to Congress in Atlanta, he was the first African American representative from the deep South since Reconstruction to hold such a position. He later served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, also the first African American to hold that position. Ambassador Young also served two terms as Mayor of Atlanta, where he played a pivotal role in bringing the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games to his city. Paula Young Shelton, Ambassador Young’s daughter, is an early childhood educator and the author of the picture book Child of the Civil Rights Movement, illustrated by Raúl Colón. As a child Paula heard the many stories her father told her about growing up in segregated New Orleans, and how racism shaped his world view, and inspired him to become a civil right activist and humanitarian. Now, the Youngs have collaborated on a picture book, illustrated by Caldecott Honor artist Gordon C. James, that presents a pivotal moment from Ambassador Young’s childhood. Here, the father-daughter team talk to each other about their collaborative work on the book, and their personal connections to its message.
Paula: First, of all, Daddy, thank you for trusting me with telling this story of the racial tensions you experienced as a child, living in the same neighborhood as a local chapter of the Nazi party. You know this is a story I grew up hearing you tell over and over. At some point I really felt like it was my story, because your telling of it impacted my understanding of racism as a child.
Andrew: Well, it is your story. I’m really happy that you decided to share it with young readers in a book, because, when you have ideas at four years old, you don’t tend to think of them as significant, you don’t realize the lessons that you are learning. But the blessing for me is that these stories have stayed with me until now, when I’m 90 years old. I understand how important the stories of my childhood are, which is why I keep telling them. And storytelling has worked at every stage of my life. I mean, not everybody grows up with an Irish grocery store on one corner, an Italian bar on the other, and the Nazi party office somewhere between. And there I am as a kid, right in the middle of it all. Back then, there were other Black families in our neighborhood, but no other Black children, except me and my younger brother, Walter. And the lady we called “Aunt Delia,” who wasn’t really my aunt.
Paula: You mean your babysitter, right?
Andrew: Right. She lived two doors down from the Nazi party. As kids, Walter and I could look out the window into the Nazi party office. We didn’t know what their funny-looking swastika flag was, and we didn’t know why they were heiling Hitler. I remember it was 1936, when I was four years old, and my daddy had the wisdom to take me to the local movie house to see a newsreel of track star Jesse Owens, racing toward Olympic gold. Daddy used Jesse Owens as a way to show me why it is valuable to stay cool under pressure. To drive home this message, Daddy often said, “Don’t get mad, get smart.” He cautioned me, “Don’t ever lose your temper in a fight, because you’ll come out the loser.” Daddy reminded me that your mind is the most powerful thing you’ve got. And if you can stay cool in a fight, it’s an emotional advantage.
Paula: So it was Andrea Pinkney, the amazing children’s author and Scholastic editor, who heard you tell this story, and she asked you to write the book. Why didn’t you just write it yourself?
Andrew: Frankly, only now, at 90, am I realizing what a special childhood I had. Almost everything was ordained for me before I went to school, see, and it was the teachers in my church nursery school who believed in me and convinced me that I could learn anything and could do anything. Paula, I knew that you, as a teacher, would know how to write this story so that children would really understand and get the lesson I was trying to convey—the lesson my daddy taught me. You were teaching in a school that wasn’t not quite like my public school. Your school was filled with students and families who were more open-minded to learning about racism, and talking about it. The school I attended had a nickname because of so much bullying—they called it the Bucket of Blood.
Paula: Oh my!
Andrew: And there are other stories there.
Paula: Oh yes, I remember hearing a lot of stories from your childhood. I just need to write a collection of short stories about how you, Andrew Young, got to be the man you are today. Daddy, you’ve accomplished so much—civil rights leader, congressman, ambassador, mayor, international businessman, philanthropist. It’s not too shabby a resume for a little colored boy from New Or-leens.
Andrew: Yeah, I don’t know about the teachers at the Bucket of Blood, but the church nursery was filled with people who loved me and made me feel that I was something special. They made every child there feel like they were something special. I realized that when my daddy said, “God created from one blood all the nations of the earth,” and he would ask me, “Didn’t you learn that in Sunday school?” Back then, he told me, “Not everyone believes that. The people in this town are white supremacists, and white supremacy is a sickness. And you don’t get mad with sick people.”
My dad was a dentist. I remember him telling me, “White people don’t want to come see me because I’m a colored dentist. But at night when their teeth start really hurting they’ll call me up and ask if they can come over.” They knew he’d be there because the office was in our house. And he said, “My business is to serve everybody. I can’t be bothered by their racism sickness. I was trained to deal with the sickness of their teeth.” He didn’t say this, but it’s almost as if by being born in the midst of all this, I was being trained to deal with the sickness in their minds and in their spirit.”
Paula: And you have dealt with a lot of sick minds like the Bull Connors and the Jim Clarks of the world. I remember you telling us the story of the Klan visiting you in Thomasville, Georgia, when Andrea (my oldest sister) was just a baby. You tried to get Mama to sit up in the window with a rifle, ’cause she was a country girl who knew how to shoot, but she wouldn’t do it. She said she would never aim a gun at a human being.
Andrew: Yeah, those folks could have taken our old house out with one match and your mama said to me, “Don’t you believe in the power of the cross?” She had a powerful faith. She knew you couldn’t let fear take over, that you had to have courage in the face of fear and ignorance. These kinds of stories are important to develop courage in future generations. Maya Angelou said, “Courage is the most important virtue, because without courage, none of the other virtues can be applied.”
You know when I was in the United Nations, Jimmy Carter sent me to Africa to meet with as many African leaders as I could, to see what they expected of his administration and how he could help. Well, the State Department didn’t want me to meet with any white South Africans, even though they were running the country. They told me to leave the white South Africans alone.”
I said, ‘Well you can leave them alone but I can’t.’ ”
The State Department said, “You don’t want to deal with them.”
I said, “Well, they’re not any worse than the kids I grew up with. I had Nazis on my block and I’ve been dealing with them since I was four years old. Finally I said, “Who is the meanest SOB you know?”
They said, “PW Botha,” who was the Prime Minister of South Africa then.
I said, “That’s the one I need to talk to.”
They said, “What are you going to say?”
I said, “I’m going to listen.”
Paula: Listening is so key. I think that’s the major problem we have today. People don’t listen to folks who have a different opinion. But you learned from Daddie Boo (which is what I called your dad, my grandfather) how important it is to listen to everybody, keep your emotions in check, and use your mind.
Andrew: Right! This lesson has lasted all my life. The hardest place for it to work is with the women I’ve been married to! [Laughs]
Paula: Daddy, we’re not going to get into that. You’ve been blessed to be married to two incredible women so you just need to learn to listen to them. But, talking can also be important.
Andrew: Yeah, I learned that in St. Augustine, Florida, when they really beat me up pretty badly and all I remember is that I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t afraid of these people who were threatening my life. If I had been fighting back or running away they would have just beaten up more people. When those racists got through beating me, I got up and said to the marchers who were there with me, “We got to go down to the next corner and try again.” And when they tried to beat me the second time, I ducked, I was bobbing and weaving and they couldn’t hit me and they tried to kick me and I turned to the side but I kept talking…
Paula: You kept talking? I think that’s a significant part of it too.
Andrew: I kept talking. I never got angry, I never got frustrated with them.
Paula: Your father’s message and the Jesse Owens story had been instilled in you.
Andrew: Yes, because everybody was mad at Hitler, for trying to block Jesse’s success as a runner by insisting that Black athletes were inferior. But Jesse didn’t pay no attention to Hitler. His problem was breaking records.
Paula: Right. He came there to win.
Andrew: And he broke his records. To hell with Hitler!
Paula: Gordon James’s paintings bring such importance and vibrancy to your story. I love the cover illustration of Jesse winning, with you racing beside him.
Andrew: I tell you, the way Jesse leans at the start of a race is classic. Because most people, when the racing gun pops, they jump up. But Jesse was running as close to the ground as he could for as long as he could. When he straightened up, he was way ahead.
Paula: Gordon really captured that, and so vividly. His illustrations are just so dynamic.
Andrew: Yeah, that’s really good artwork. You know, as part of his research, Gordon called me up and we talked about the neighborhood where I grew up, and the theater where my dad took me to see the Jesse Owens newsreel.
I told Gordon to look through my adult book, The Many Lives of Andrew Young by Ernie Suggs. And I instructed him to not just look at the pictures—I told him to read the words.
Paula: I have to tell you, Daddy, one of the best things about collaborating on this book has been spending the time with you. And hearing you tell these stories in such vivid detail.
Andrew: You are a wonderful young lady, Paula, and you are very much loved. Always remember to keep your mind calm and your heart calm.
My daddy said, “Don’t get mad, get smart,” I say, don’t get upset. Don’t get emotional, think your way through it, take your time.
Paula: Alright, Daddy, love you.
Andrew: I love you, too.