Whitney Young was a dynamic civil-rights activist whose work on race relations and other socioeconomic issues led to numerous community and government appointments and helped change the face of the nation.
In 1968, Young spoke at convocation and dedicated the newly established Western Michigan University's School of Social Work. This was considered a great and memorable honor for the school and the University. When Young drowned in Nigeria in 1971, the school initiated the Whitney Young Scholarship and an annual celebration to honor him. Two social work students are selected as Whitney Young Scholars each year, and the celebration features a speaker whose life and work exemplify Young's spirit.
Young earned a bachelor's degree from Kentucky State University and a master's degree in social work from the University of Minnesota. He first discovered his calling while enlisted in the Army Specialist Training Program during World War II, where he served in an anti-aircraft company of African-Americans. Racism was rampant and his interest in civil rights was sparked when he became a liaison between the soldiers and the white officers.
In 1961, Young was appointed executive director of the National Urban League. Under his leadership, the staff grew from 38 employees to 1,600 and the organization moved to the foreground of the civil rights movement. During his tenure there, he pioneered affirmative action practices by securing well-paid employment for African Americans in areas where they were normally excluded. Young also created Street Academy, an educational program that prepared high school dropouts for college, as well as the New Thrust, an initiative which helped community leaders identify and resolve issues.
He received numerous awards for his efforts including the National Association of Social Workers' Social Work Pioneer in 1965 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson in 1969.