“None of us had any real education in social change. I was a biology major and a preacher. And yet we found ourselves in positions where we had to change the world . . . and what you will find is that it is easy if you listen to that still, small voice within. That’s where you hear God.” These wise words were shared recently by civil rights warrior and former Atlanta mayor and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young with nearly 2,000 college students and teachers gathered together to prepare to conduct summer Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® programs. They are literacy rich child empowerment programs for pre-K-12th grade students to staunch summer leaning loss. Andy Young reminded all of us how critical it is to find significance and purpose in one’s life’s work—one worth living and dying for: “Now, Dr. King used to tell us all the time, ‘You’re going to die, but you don’t have anything to say about where you die, how you die, when you die. The only choice you have is what it is you die for.’ So each day you need to chart your life so that if your life were taken on that day, people would say, ‘This is what he gave his life for’ or ‘This is what she gave her life for.'”
He said that as young people already committed to serving as educators and mentors and advocates for children, they were already on their way: “If you listen to what’s going on in the news, it’s easy to despair and give up. But you are God’s children . . . You are vessels of the love of God or you wouldn’t be here. Somebody loved you somewhere and told you you were somebody. And because of that, at least for a little while, you have enough dedication to stop whatever else you were doing, to come here to try to share your blessings with others . . . So God bless you, and you pass on God’s blessings to the people and children with whom you work all summer long… Make them believe in themselves, and it doesn’t take much. Just sometimes say to them—’You know, you are a wonderful person.’ ‘Golly, you write well.’ ‘You recited that beautifully.’ It’s positive reinforcement, and so much beats us down and we beat each other down that if we can lift each other up, we lift up the world.”
Andy Young emphasized that allowing a positive purpose to direct your path can be much more powerful than just having a plan. His decision as a young minister to return to the South in 1961 to dedicate himself full time to the civil rights movement seemed impractical by any logical standard: it required quitting his job with the National Council of Churches in New York and moving his family to an unknown future while his wife Jean was pregnant with their third child. But they stepped out in faith, especially Jean: “She was one of these crazy women who believed that God would lead you, and you didn’t need to know where you were going.” Following that calling and continuing to go where he felt led even when it wasn’t originally part of his own plan shaped his life: “I didn’t want to be in the movement. I wanted to observe, analyze, write about it, and all of a sudden I’m right in the middle of it, and everything that has happened to me has happened without any plan, without knowing anything about it.”
“I didn’t want to go to Congress. I didn’t want to go to the U.N., but going to the United Nations—I told Jimmy Carter, I said, ‘Look, if it comes to a choice between the State Department and what Martin Luther King taught, I’m not going to listen to the State Department. I really would rather stay in Congress,’ and he said, ‘No. That’s why we need you at the U.N., because we need to take some of the vision of human rights from Martin Luther King and the nonviolent movement, and we need to share it with the world.'”
Trying to discern and follow God’s purpose in his life helped Andy Young make a huge difference in our country and around the world. Encouraging young leaders to seek and follow their own passion and purpose, however, requires overcoming the love of wealth and need for security he warned: “You can be enslaved by your ambitions and your greed for status and material things, or by your fears. But when you overcome those and really free up your spirit, the power of God flows through you in such a way that the world has to change around you. Now, it doesn’t change automatically, and you don’t see it—but it’s changed.”
After I was arrested with about 90 other Black college students during my senior year at Spelman College in March 1960 for helping organize and participating in student sit-ins at Atlanta’s racially segregated restaurants—I got arrested for sitting in the restaurant at Atlanta’s City Hall—I wrote in my diary when I returned to Spelman’s campus: “SOMETHING WORTH LIVING AND DYING FOR!” I never lost that conviction—especially during the four years I served in Mississippi as a civil rights lawyer during and after the 1964 Freedom Summer Project. Although I never cranked up my car in the morning without leaving the driver’s door open having been instructed that if a bomb had been planted I had a chance that way of being thrown from the car injured rather than killed, and occasionally realized a bullet had whizzed by into a wall just passed, these things were not paralyzing. It’s amazing how you learn to live with danger if you feel you’re doing the right thing and connected to a higher presence. I marveled repeatedly at the courage I could not hope to match of poor Black Mississippians, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leaders, and the young civil rights workers in Mississippi—Black and White—who served in the Freedom Summer project and day in and day out risked their lives for justice.
I also learned that change is almost never instant or obvious but can take time from many many seeds that are faithfully sown. How rewarding it was when Andy Young became mayor of Atlanta 21 years after my arrest at City Hall—succeeding Maynard Jackson, who had been the first Black mayor of a major Southern city—and I visited him in his City Hall office. Doing the right thing matters even when you don’t see the immediate consequences.
I hope and pray that a new generation of young people in America and around our world will catch the passion for justice and engagement and find their own calling to end indefensible child poverty, racism, ill health, illiteracy, unjust incarceration, violence plaguing our nation and world, and greed. My daddy always told us children that God runs a full employment economy and that if you just follow the need you will never lack for a positive purpose in life. I hope young people and all of us will follow the need and find ways to stop the backwards drift of our nation: resegregating and unequally funded schools; zero tolerance school discipline policies that push huge numbers of children into the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems; racial profiling; a range of new voter suppression measures; guns, guns, guns everywhere; and growing wealth and income inequality. There is no greater need.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.