Entering politics, Young served in Congress, was the primary African American ambassador to the United Nations and became mayor of Atlanta. In 1981, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The product of a middle class family—his dad was a dentist, his mom a teacher—he had to travel from his neighborhood to attend segregated schools. After graduating from Howard University, Young decided to study at Connecticut’s Hartford Theological Seminary. In 1955, he became an ordained minister. Working as a pastor in Georgia, Young first became part of the Civil Rights Movement when he formed voter registration drives. Although the schools were a success, Young occasionally had trouble associating with all the rural pupils in this program.
As the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was running the citizenship school program, Young became an associate of the business and started working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Inside the SCLC, Young organized desegregation efforts through the South, such as the May 3, 1963 march against segregation during which players were assaulted by police dogs. King valued Young’s work, trusting Young to manage the SCLC when demonstrations meant that King needed to spend some time behind bars. In 1964, Young became the SCLC’s executive director. While in this position, he helped draw up the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Following King’s departure, Young became executive vice president of the SCLC.