In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Andrew Young U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
At the time, I was a high school student in the Caribbean, and even at that distance, I was bursting with pride over having a black man in that high-profile post. Young was a hero. Black boys like me all over the world could dream of becoming U.N. ambassadors.
I had a chance to see Young in person for the first time earlier this week when the former Atlanta mayor and congressman visited Saint Leo University in east Pasco.
I was intrigued by the timing. Young was in town even as his former boss was making waves in the Middle East for talking to the militant Palestinian group Hamas.
Here's the twist:
More than 30 years ago, Young was forced to resign after speaking to representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who were then considered terrorists and the sworn enemies of Israel. Hamas, a splinter group that grew to prominence after Carter left office, is now the enemy. The PLO is now among the good guys and a partner for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But four U.S. presidents later, peace is elusive, and Carter is still trying to bring all sides together.
"Jimmy Carter speaks to more people in Israel and the Palestinian territories than anyone else," Young said admiringly of his fellow Georgian after I asked him to comment on the controversy.
"He's going there because responsible people have asked him to," Young said. "Every enemy is a potential friend."
That's the perspective of someone who has seen America transformed by the power of nonviolent protesters, who defied water hoses and snarling dogs, someone who was with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the night the civil rights leader was assassinated.
Like Carter, Young finds opportunity and optimism where others see only despair. Like Carter, Young is more preoccupied by global affairs than domestic issues. For Carter, it's the Middle East; for Young, it's the plight of Africa.
Young wants Americans to see the African continent as a land of business and development opportunity rather than a source of insoluble problems. Africa needs everything we take for granted in America — roads, infrastructure, trained workers.
But America faces stiff competition from the Chinese, the British and other powers in the contest for African oil and other mineral resources, as well as its markets.
"Africa is too much for anyone to handle," he said. "There are no simple solutions."
But America can win the contest: We are more innovative, ingenious, and we know how to lead, he said.
"Leadership of the planet is going to fall back on us," Young said.
All of the highs and lows in public life have clearly made Young a true believer in the divine order and in America's love of freedom and what he calls our "sense of fairness."
"Our advantage is our ability to deal with diversity," Young said. "We've been struggling with diversity all of our lives."
And that struggle makes us stronger.
Andrew Skerritt can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602.