In a recent episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer”, Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young discussed his relationship with the late Martin Luther King Jr., and what it was like to be at the center of the civil rights movement in the '50s and '60s.
ANDY SERWER: You have worked with so many remarkable Americans, remarkable people from around the world, but probably none more so than Martin Luther King. And I have to ask you what he was like, what it was like working with Dr. King.
ANDREW YOUNG: Well, you have to remember, when I met him, he was 26, and I was 23, 24. And he was just a really easygoing, humble, lot of fun, cracked a lot of jokes, always picking on people in a very loving, friendly way. He had a way of teasing you by reminding you of your faults and your weaknesses. And he was also a comedian. I mean, he loved to tell stories, and mostly preacher stories, making fun of preachers and people in his own profession.
But he grew up in Atlanta on Auburn Avenue, literally. Auburn Avenue, in his childhood, had everything. It had all of the churches, all of the prostitution, all of the gambling, all of those pool halls, the YMCA. And so he was really comfortable with all kinds of people. And he grew up spending a lot of time in the YMCA.
And so nobody ever thought of him as a good athlete. But even though he was just 5' 7", he was a good basketball player because he was very quick and he could shoot with either hand. But he grew up in the Y. He could-- and you-- the YMCA, in those days, had pool tables and ping pong tables. So he could shoot pool, and he could play table tennis.
And he was just an all-around good guy. And he got along with everybody. One of his best friends was a kid that I don't know how old he was when he met him, but he found him looking for food in a garbage can. And he stopped him from eating out of the garbage can and took him home to his house for lunch.
And the Reverend Fred C. Bennett, he followed after Martin Luther King, as Martin was small, he was a huge guy. He was 230, 40 pounds. And they were, like, best friends. But he was also very friendly with all of the graduate students and professors.
But Fred Bennett stayed with him till he died. And when he went to Montgomery for the Freedom Rides, they threw a-- well, they didn't know what kind of bomb it was, they threw it up on the porch of the church just as Martin was coming out. And Fred knocked him back into the church and picked up the bomb and threw it over into the parking lot.
And he was the kind of guy that would give his life without thinking about it. And he-- I mean, he was that way with Martin. And then he sort of adopted me and decided after Dr. King's death he was going to take care of me.
ANDY SERWER: Let me ask you about that, Ambassador, and maybe this is painful, but I want-- I want to ask you. You were there on that morning, April 4, 1968 in Memphis when Dr. King was killed.
ANDREW YOUNG: Mm-hmm.
ANDY SERWER: What was that like? What happened that morning?
ANDREW YOUNG: Well, I was in court, and all of-- and trying to get permission to March with the sanitation workers, and the court pretty much was deciding in our favor. And I came back to his room, which was downstairs in the Lorraine Motel, and there was his brother and this fellow Bennett and all of his friends. And somebody had brought in a whole platter of catfish, and they were having a good time.
I mean, I hadn't seen him laugh or joke like that. When I came in, he started picking on me. I said, well, wait a minute. I was trying to keep you out of jail, let you march. You want to march. And he thought I was-- well, I was standing up to him. And he says, oh, you a smartie, huh?
And he picked up a pillow on the bed, and he threw it at me. Well, I'd never seen him that kind of playful, so I threw it back at him. And everybody picked up pillows, and they started beating me down between these two double beds.
And it was like 12-year-olds. And I had never seen him so happy because he was with his closest friends for most of his life. And just in the middle of this, somebody knocked on the door and said, you all are supposed to be at my wife's house for dinner at 6:00, and it's quarter to 6:00.
ANDY SERWER: AM?
ANDREW YOUNG: No, evening.
ANDY SERWER: Oh, this is the night before.
ANDREW YOUNG: No, this is-- yeah, this is the evening.
ANDY SERWER: Right.
ANDREW YOUNG: And he went up to his room to put on a shirt and tie. But I had not seen him that relaxed and joyful, I don't know whether ever. And he went upstairs to his room, and I was down in the parking lot, still clowning and shadowboxing with a guy, another big guy, big football player from around Birmingham.
And a shot rang out. And I ran-- the atmosphere was such that I thought he was kidding. I thought he was joking because I didn't see him, and I thought he'd played like he was staggering back in the room. When I ran up the steps, I saw he was laying in a pool of blood.
But the bullet had hit the tip of his chin and severed his spine. And I doubt that he-- I doubt that he heard the shot because the bullet travels faster than sound. And I even doubt that he felt anything because that shot severed his spinal cord. And it took a while for his heart to stop beating.
But in-- he talked about death all the time. And he was-- he was always joking about death. And he said death is the ultimate democracy. I don't care what color you are, how rich you are, poor you are, you going to die. And one of his favorite pastimes was deciding that you were going to die, I was going to die, and then he said that now you will be a challenge, how can I preach your sorry ass into heaven?
And he'd make you laugh at your death because then he would start making your case before God. But he never talked about anything that was worthwhile. He would always talk about your weaknesses and-- but that was the way he made us comfortable with death. He talked about death all the time.
Well, my grandmother used to talk about death. And in the Black community, death is not something you fear. It's something that you accept as inevitable. And my grandmother lost her sight when she was in her 80s. And she used to fuss with God about keeping her there too long, that she was ready to go on home to glory.
And she would recite all of the things that she'd done that made her deserving. And she did have a reputation of-- well, this was in the depression. And we were not far from the railroad tracks. So all of the hobos, we called them back then, would come by our house.
And I remember being out there on the porch, Fred's front steps, and a guy comes by and says, they tell me there's a goodhearted colored woman here that will give anybody who's hungry something to eat. Does she live here? I say, yeah, you must be talking about my grandmother. And that was the reputation she had. I don't know how far it went.
But it-- she felt that she was entitled to her heavenly reward. And Martin kind of felt that way too. I mean, he had no fear of death. And he made us comfortable with the possibility of our own death by making fun of us as though he were preaching our funeral.
And so it-- well, there's a passage in the Bible Elijah going to heaven on a flaming chariot. And I got pulled out of Sunday school one day because I said, I don't believe that. I said it out loud, so they sent me to the superintendent who was my mother.
But that's what I thought about when I saw Martin Luther King there, going to glory. And what I said, and I said out loud to him, you can't go to heaven and leave us in hell. We can't make it without you. You can't go yet, I said.
But what I didn't understand then that I do now, and it's been over 50 years, and Martin Luther King is more powerful spiritually now than he was when he was physically alive, that he's quoted more-- I mean, I'm always shocked at-- well, the other night on MSNBC, somebody said, Dr. King used to say "the moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward justice."
I mean, that's a quote from 60, 70 years ago, but it's still a relevant interpretation of our life, our struggles on this Earth. And I think it's because I had the childhood training with my grandmother and the young adult training with him that I don't have any questions or any doubts about this not being the end for us.