With equal parts grace and gravitas, Andrew Young had a crowd of Coca-Cola associates rapt as he talked about his lifelong connection to the brand.
“It was part of my life,” he said. “I follow Coca-Cola. I’ve been around the world, and I don’t think I’ve been any place yet, in 152 countries, where if I asked for a Coca-Cola that I couldn’t get one… and the company has been doing something right for a long time.”
The civil rights pioneer, congressman, United Nations ambassador, former Atlanta mayor, and co-author of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Right Act of 1965 visited Coca-Cola’s Atlanta headquarters last week as part of a special Black History Month presentation.
The event was hosted by Lisa Borders, VP of Global Community Affairs for Coca-Cola, and sponsored by the company’s African-American Business Resources Group.
Growing Up in Segregated America
Ambassador Young discussed what it was like being raised in the South during the segregation era. Raised in a family with strong faith and values, he was taught at a young age not to get angry at ignorance and hate.
The lessons of non-violence were planted when he was just four years old. His father talked about the power of peaceful resistance, something that would serve Young well as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
“When you’re in a struggle, don’t get mad, get smarter,” Young remembers his father telling him. “You’re never going to be able to beat everybody with your fists. You might be able to outrun a lot of people… but you won’t feel good about fighting or running. The only way you’re going to make it in this world… is to use your head.”
Finding his Calling
Ambassador Young’s father was a dentist, but he knew early on that he wasn’t interested in a career that required him to be confined to an office all day.
Young credits a "higher power" calling him to lead a life of great purpose, and that all of the key players in the Civil Rights Movement were inspired by their faith.
“It was a spirit none of us fully understood,” he recalled.
Civil Rights Movement
Along with icons like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis and Joseph Lowery, Ambassador Young helped move civil rights forward. He had a gift for connecting with audiences of all races and backgrounds. In meeting after meeting, he shared the movement’s philosophy of non-violence and helped white audiences understand efforts to bring about change by simply no longer adhering to segregationist policies. This predominantly peaceful refusal to spend money at segregated establishments – stores, restaurants, theaters and other popular retail outlets – began to reshape the opinions of many local business leaders, which eventually helped bring about an end to segregation in Birmingham, Ala.
Ambassador to the UN
Young was the first ever African-American U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 and served through 1979.
He knew building relationships was key to diplomatic effectiveness.
From playing tennis with the Russian UN Ambassador to having his mother cook a homemade Southern meal for the new Chinese UN Ambassador, he described how those connections are more meaningful then they might appear on the surface.
“I have never missed a party at the UN,” Young said. “You need to [attend] every party they have because you learn more about this place at the party than you will going to the meetings. People in the meetings are reading what somebody else told them to say. At the party you find out what’s really going on.”
Civil Rights Landscape in Present Day
When Ambassador Young was asked about the current climate regarding diversity and inclusion in America, he described progress made since the early civil rights struggles and work that remains.
“I think legal racism is dead,” replied Young. “Do people still have problems with race? Yeah, but it’s not legal for anybody. But the one area we have not made much progress on is poverty.”
“There are cultural challenges that we face everywhere,” he added. “We still live in a very complex world.”
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