Meet the Man Behind the Award – Whitney M. Young, Jr

March 20, 2017 by GPUL Events

“We are the social engineers, we are the strategists, we are the planners, we are the people who worked at the level of policy-making, policy implementation, the highest echelons of the corporate community, the highest echelons of the government community, the highest echelons of the labor movement.”

These are the words of Whitney M. Young, Jr, a civil rights pioneer and a former executive director of the National Urban League. The above quote was the view Young had in regards to the National Urban League at the time, the turbulent decade of the 1960s where race was a decider for many opportunities not afforded to African Americans and other minorities. Young spent most of his career working to end discrimination in the workplace and turning the National Urban League into an organization of change for their communities. This effort to create change begin in childhood, following the model from his parents:

  • His father, Whitney M. Young, Sr was president of the Lincoln Institute, an all-black boarding high school and was twice the president of the Kentucky Negro Educational Association.
  • His mother, Laura Young, was the first female postmistress in Kentucky and the second within the United States. She was appointed to the position by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.

Young’s work with the National Urban League began locally, when he started volunteering with the St. Paul, Minnesota branch before becoming its industrial relations secretary in 1949. A year later, he became the president of the Omaha, Nebraska chapter, helping placing black workers in jobs that were previously only reserved for white employees. Under his leadership, the local chapter was able to triple its paying membership.

This would prove to be the start of his work with the National Urban League, which he became executive director in 1961.

As executive director, Young expanded the organization to 1600 employees and annual budget of $6,100,000, significant gains for what was a small group of those who looked for change in a racially divided country.

Under Young’s leadership, the Urban League was brought to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, helping to expand the mission of the league, but also gaining support from influential white businesses and political leaders. His Marshall Plan was partially utilized by then President Lyndon B Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative, while fostering more hiring of black employees, creating a close relationship with Henry Ford II. Because of his leadership and vision, Young was sought as an important adviser to several US presidents, including Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

As a leader in civil rights and a figurehead for the Urban League, we honor the man, the memory, and the actions of Whitney M Young Jr with our 53rd Annual Whitney M Young Jr Awards dinner. This dinner not only celebrates one of the most influential members of the Urban League, but celebrates those valley residents who follow in his footsteps with everyday actions that exhibit genuine concern for our community by promoting diversity, racial harmony, and social and economic equality.

This year, we’re happy to honor the Grand Canyon University and Alan “AP” Powell. Both have done wonderful things for our Phoenix communities, by helping to support the residents with volunteerism and key programs and resources:

  • GCU organizes and runs the Run to Fight Children’s Cancer, an annual run which provides support to the Phoenix Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Cancer Network.
  • Student and staff volunteer every holiday season with the Canyon Cares Christmas to create a Christmas wonderland for hundreds of neighborhood families, including a visit from Santa.
  • GCU also supports and partners with the Phoenix Dream Center and Habitat for Humanity, organizations that help to serve homeless, low-income, and other struggling individuals and families, as well as building and repairing homes for underprivileged.
  • The Checkered Flag Run foundation also offers several programs to help both citizens and veterans within the valley, include Tools 4 Schools to help provide basic school supplies to families who can’t afford them.
  • The foundation also offers programs for veterans and family members of those who served, including the Veterans Reach to Teach program, designed to hire veterans to guest teach in Arizona schools and Voting for Veterans which mobilizes vets in public office to promote issues that are important to the veteran community.


To see past winners of the award, visit our honorees page.