Theologian and Morehouse College graduate Howard Thurman, a man who influenced many of the nation’s civil rights leaders, once issued a challenge to students at the famed Atlanta school.
Over the heads of her students, Morehouse holds a crown that she challenges them to grow tall enough to wear.
And so it was that Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and UN Ambassador, himself a noted civil rights leader, issued a similar challenge in the ballroom at the Marriott Westshore on Tuesday.
After a stirring speech at Tampa’s annual United Negro College Fund Luncheon, Young received an award from the officials who organized the event — an impressive etched glasswork. Instead of taking the award, however, he asked one of the members of the Bethune-Cookman University Concert Chorale to keep an eye on the prize — handing it over to him and telling him to grow tall enough to wear the crown.
The moment moved the student, Terrance Tyree, as it did the crowd. Gwen Hewitt, the UNCF development director, fought back tears. Deiah Riley, the ABC Action News anchor who emceed the event, also grew emotional.
The gesture struck a chord because it so represented the UNCF’s mission, and the broader goal of inspiring the next generation.
Through achievement and action, Young, now 85, has provided an example that has touched multiple generations.
In the 1960s, he worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., furthering the cause of civil rights. In fact, Young proved to be one of the pivotal figures during a 1964 protest in St. Augustine, one of Florida’s most pivotal moments during the movement.
And it was Young who was at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis with King when an assassin’s bullet ended the civil rights leader’s life.
In the 1970s, Young went on to serve in Congress and as UN ambassador during the Carter Administration. In the 1980s, he spent two terms as mayor of Atlanta.
He’s part of the Civil Rights legacy, so highly regarded people lined up to get photographs with him.
In his keynote address, he spoke eloquently on the subjects of politics, gun control and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allowed money to exert greater influence over elections.
But, overall, Young’s remarks were uplifting.
"I feel good about this country, because things are better than they’ve ever been before in my lifetime," Young said. "I say that because politics have always been bad and confusing, all our lives, but never has science done so well, never has technology gone so far, never has health and medicine and nutrition been as advanced as in this age."
On those positive notes, Young sang the praises of the UNCF and the key role historically black colleges can play in lifting up students through a family atmosphere of care and concern.
Some may ask about the UNCF’s and its historical focus of African-Americans, but the organization no longer limits its support to blacks. The UNCF (uncf.org/orlando) follows in the footsteps of the Civil Rights Movement, acknowledging the struggle but never making its mission solely about race.
"The issue was clearly not race, nor was it ever," Young said. "It always looked like it was racial, but the struggle for freedom has never been a struggle just about color. It’s been about redeeming the soul of America from the triple evils of racism, war and poverty."
Today, we find the most hope for our future among our young, the teens like those from Parkland who continue their drive to redeem the nation’s soul.
Overall, this generation is imperfect but growing. I believe these kids will soon be tall enough to wear that all important crown — if we help.
That’s all I’m saying.