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First Lady Michelle Obama Salutes Whitney Young

Dorothy Rowley | 8/28/2013, 2:21 p.m.
Whitney Young Jr. served as executive director of the National Urban League for 10 years before his death in 1971. (Courtesy photo)

First lady Michelle Obama, who on Tuesday hosted a screening of a biopic that chronicles the life of civil rights leader Whitney Young Jr., encouraged the audience of students from the District and Loudon County, Va., to become agents for change in the country’s ongoing push to becoming a more fair and just society.

The screening of “The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights,” which was held at the old Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House, coincided with several activities that began in the District a week ago, leading to Wednesday’s remembrance of the momentous 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

“We wanted to be sure to do something special on this day, because tomorrow we’re going to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington,” the first lady said. “And, as you’ll see in this documentary, Whitney Young was one of the main organizers of that historic march which gathered together hundreds of thousands of people of all races and all backgrounds, with the important goal of making a change.”

Young, who died at 49 in 1971 while on a visit to Lagos, Nigeria, rose from segregated Kentucky to become executive director of the National Urban League, where he served for 10 years.

In referring to Young as an unsung hero in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Obama noted that the controversial leader also graduated from Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago where she was a member of the Class of 1981.

She said that in watching the hour-long documentary, students would discover that he drew on his “decency, intelligence and amazing sense of humor to face down all kinds of discrimination.”

Obama, who spoke for about 20 minutes, went to quote Young, saying that it’s "better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one, than to have an opportunity and not be prepared."

"You know what that means,” she asked. “You got to be ready all the time. That means today you are preparing yourselves for the opportunities that are going to come your way.”

The film, which is narrated by actress Alfre Woodard and features commentary by literary critic and scholar Henry Louis Gates, is airing on PBS.