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Whitney M. Young Jr.: Powerbroker of the Civil Rights Movement

Lee A. Daniels | 2/20/2013, 2:11 p.m.

He was one of the great civil rights leaders of his time--so influential that he graced the cover of an issue of Time magazine. He was on easy social terms with some of America's leading corporate titans and a president of the United States.

He was the last person to speak at the landmark 1963 March on Washington before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

He was responsible for the employment of tens of thousands of Black Americans during the 1960s - and, it can be said, for the employment of millions in the decades afterward. More than any other individual, he opened the upper reaches of corporate America to Black men and women. His ideas for improving the lot of Black Americans - expanding their educational and employment opportunity, and fortifying their physical and social well-being - influenced President Lyndon B. Johnson's crafting of his Great Society legislation.

He helped steer Black America through the social and political cauldron of the late 1960s and negotiated, in effect, a peace treaty with the Nixon administration for Black America that produced more federal funding for programs intended to bolster Black Americans than ever before.

And, his tragic death cut short a life much too soon.

His name was Whitney M. Young, Jr. He was the powerbroker of the Civil Rights Movement. He was

That word is the foundation of the title of a documentary on Young's life and work being shown this week on Public Broadcasting Service stations. "The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights" captures the importance of a man who was at the center of the enormous effort in the 1960s to transform the United States from a de facto apartheid state to a true democracy, but who, since his death in 1971 while swimming at an ocean beach in Nigeria, seemed to rapidly disappear from the public consciousness. The documentary, produced by Young's niece, Bonnie Boswell, is the first substantial treatment of him since a biography by scholar Dennis Dickerson (who is included in the documentary) 15 years ago.

The superb effort is both long overdue and right on time. For, even as it strips away more of the gauze that still seems to obscure how difficult the achievement of basic civil rights for Blacks in the 1960s was and how frighteningly turbulent the late 1960s were, "The Powerbroker" implicitly establishes the direct link between the work Young did and sought to do then and the complex place in American society Black Americans occupy now.

For one thing, Young's advocacy in 1963 and 1964 - before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - of a comprehensive $145-billion social and economic plan for Black Americans, which he called a "domestic Marshall Plan," underscores that he and the rest of the civil rights leadership fully understood the importance of putting African Americans on a solid economic foundation for their, and the nation's, benefit.

Listen to Young's explanation of the need for it, and then recall President Obama's discussion of some of America's social needs in his State of the Union speech.