Andrew Young, a contemporary and friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., told some 400 listeners in the Eynon Ballroom Jan. 17 that the struggle for civil rights has made great strides in America but continues even today.
Young, who since the 1960s has served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. congressman, and mayor of Atlanta, was the keynote speaker for the 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast at Rowan. The holiday in memory of the slain civil rights leader was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 and first celebrated in 1986 – the same year the Rowan MLK scholarship breakfast started.
Young, an ordained minister and avowed capitalist, said while the America of 2011 is far more equitable than the America of 1968, there remains an “economic inequality” that disproportionately affects Americans on the lowest socioeconomic rungs.
Today, he said, the richest 1% of Americans control 24% of the nation’s wealth and for many of the nation’s poor it is harder than ever to climb into the middle class.
“One of the things Martin Luther King advocated was expanding opportunities that the rich and middle class had to the lower class,” he said.
Ironically, he noted, King was the son of privilege – his father was a successful banker as well as an ordained minister – but felt a compulsion to fight for people not born into a comfortable life.
Young, who was beaten and jailed in the 60s for participating in non-violent civil rights protests – a Constitutional right – was with King in Memphis when King was assassinated April 4, 1968.
Today, he told the Rowan audience, America has a thriving “prison-industrial complex” that King, had he been alive, would have decried.
“Martin Luther King thought it was cheaper to educate poor people than to put them in jail,” he said.
Young, who was appointed Ambassador to the United Nations by President Jimmy Carter, has received the highest civilian honors in both the United States and France – the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Legion d’honneur. He’s been awarded more than 45 honorary degrees including diplomas from Dartmouth, Yale and the University of Georgia. And, at 78, works actively for the betterment of conditions in Africa.
Speaking ahead of Young, Rowan President Donald Farish said there is no question that America has developed significantly since the turbulent 1960s when Farish himself was in college.
But he said one important measure – college graduation rates – has stalled or fallen in recent years, particularly among students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and it is one obvious place where the civil rights struggle continues.
He noted that a disproportionate percentage of African and Hispanic Americans live in poorer communities, attend lesser quality public schools and have lower college graduation rates, by and large, than white Americans.
“As a society we no longer tolerate racial bigots but we have substituted economic bias for racial bias,” Dr. Farish said. “It is almost the same thing.”
Rowan’s Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast, which is sponsored by the Rowan University Foundation, benefits the William H. Myers Scholarship Endowment Fund for high-achieving minority students. More than $30,000 was raised by the Jan. 17 event.
To hear a podcast of Ambassador Young’s speech, please follow this link.