The Color Line: When an Elder Statesman Is Black

Culture Watch

Ms. King is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University.

It wasn't until the national disaster brought on by the events of September 11 that I fully appreciated the rhetorical force an African American elder statesman could wield. Though respected public figures saturated the airwaves with words of reassurance to comfort grief-stricken and fearful citizens like me, it wasn't until I watched an interview NBC's Tom Brokaw conducted with former UN Ambassador Andrew Young that I felt palpably better. Young's insight and eloquence reduced my anxiety and inspired me to believe that the nation would heal and perhaps ultimately be stronger. When I think about why Young could assuage my fears and others could not, I realize the reasons have to do with both the qualities that define him as an elder statesman and the fact that he is African American.

"We shall overcome," Young declared when Brokaw asked him about lessons the country had learned from previous generations. These words resonated within me. I recognized them as the battle cry of the civil rights movement, another challenging period in America's history. Young then expressed faith in the Bush Administration's ability to guide the country through the present crisis, at which point I almost tuned him out. I had harbored hostility toward the Bush Administration since the contentious 2000 election. In my estimation, George W. Bush was an unimpressive leader and I little confidence in his ability to guide the nation through a crisis of this magnitude.

Young challenged my pessimism when he declared that during a national crisis the Office of the President can make a strong leader of its officeholder, even when the individual is thought to be deficient in ability. Young recalled that history and struggle had made giants of men like Lincoln, John Adams, Jefferson, and F. D. Roosevelt. These men, Young claimed, were seen initially as"ordinary,""weak," and" compromising" presidents, but when the situation called for a formidable leader, they rose to the challenge, deriving strength from the situation, the confidence of the American people, and from God. In other words, Young testified that the Presidency could fashion the officeholder into the kind of leader"the people" need, especially during a crisis.

Young's eloquent application of America's political history to the present situation was not only thoughtful and compelling, but his prediction has come true. Since the crisis, we've seen perceptions of Bush change from a likable, but inarticulate politician, to a decisive and determined leader.

Young's prophetic wisdom has been cultivated by a long and distinguished career in public life that includes, civil rights activism, three terms in the United States House of Representatives, Ambassador to the United Nations, and two terms as mayor of Atlanta. Currently, he serves on numerous boards of directors and is public affairs professor at Georgia State University, where the School of Policy is named after him. These positions have given him different vantage points from which to observe America's institutions and its national character.

Moreover, Young served these positions honorably. Unlike many politicians, scandal doesn't overshadow his legacy. So whereas Young's experience in political office gives him the authority to speak on matters of State, his reputation for integrity makes me believe him.

Though Young's character and experience are the basis of his rhetorical power, one other factor accounts for his ability to move so profoundly, the fact that he is African American. When read against America's tumultuous racial history, Young's ascent to elder statesman represents the very hope he promoted in the interview. Both his race and his activism in the civil rights movement-a movement many saw as subversive, radical, and destructive-- placed him on the fringes of society. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, Young and others demanded equal rights for all Americans. That Young has effectively moved from the political margins, to holding positions in the highest levels of government suggests that the nation has moved a bit closer to its own ideal of equality.

When one considers Young's early career in public life, his status as elder statesman is remarkable, if not ironic, a fact not lost on Brokaw. In the most poignant part of the interview, Brokaw remarked and reflected on Young's emergence from the" cauldron" of the"turbulent" civil rights movement to being a revered statesman,"speaking so eloquently" to the nation during a dark period. It was clear at that moment in the interview that both men were as much in awe of their respective professional positions as they were at the extraordinary circumstances that had brought them there.

Although the qualities that make Young an elder statesman give him credibility, it is the symbolism in his rise to elder statesman that gives me hope. His civil rights activities remind me that America has been challenged before. His movement from the political margins to central seats of government signifies that America can transcend some of its own limitations. His eloquent words teach me that overcoming is a process of persevering through difficult times, learning the lessons history has to teach us, and applying those lessons to future challenges. In my view, Young is an elder statesman of the highest order.

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