A Cherished Last Letter of Civil Rights Leader Whitney Young, Jr.

Black and white closeup shot of Whitney Young Jr. at microphone

Filmmaker Bonnie Boswell treasures her uncle Whitney Young, Jr.’s letter to her parents. See the letter below.

Journalist Bonnie Boswell has many fond memories of her uncle Whitney Young, Jr., a pivotal behind-the-scenes player in the civil rights movement. In fact, he’s the subject of her upcoming documentary, The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights. (Independent Lens, 10 p.m. Feb. 18. Check local listings.)

Even though he was at the heart of civil rights, most people today don’t know Young’s name, much less his vast accomplishments. He excelled at being an inside man, eschewing fame for working to break down barriers in the boardrooms of countless corporations and the oval office of three presidents.

“I am not anxious to be the loudest voice or the most popular,” he once said. “But I would like to think that at a crucial moment, I was an effective voice of the voiceless, an effective hope of the hopeless.”

Young died too young. He was 49, and in the prime of his career when he drowned while swimming in rough surf not far from friends and family while visiting Lagos, Nigeria, where he was attending a conference. Boswell says some questioned the cause of his death, especially after a Lagos coroner had described a different cause of death (brain hemorrhage)  than the United States coroner (drowning). But his widow didn’t want to pursue it, and let it go, says Boswell.

Boswell recently ran across a letter Young had sent to her mother and father (Young’s sister Arnita Boswell, and her husband, Paul Boswell) just eight days before he died. Boswell wanted to share it with Independent Lens because he died so soon after, and mostly because “it shows what a sweet, thoughtful guy he was.” Although it is just a simple family letter, we thought it was pretty special, too, so we’re sharing it with you.

First page of letter from Whitney Young to his sister Second page of letter from Whitney Young to his sisterYes, you could see the kind of man he was just by the two pages of this simple note written on the fly on United Airlines paper.

It’s pretty special to find something like this from such a great man. But even those of us who don’t have famous relatives may have some cherished items from people from previous generations.

What do you have in your family treasure trove? If you have a photo of it, or even a great family photo from way back when, we’d love to see it! (You can upload a photo with your comment.) To get you started, here’s a beautiful photo Bonnie Boswell sent us of her uncle as a boy, with his parents and sisters.

Black and white formal photo of the Young family, with parents Whitney Sr. and Laura, and children (L-R) Eleanor, Whitney, Arnita.

The Young family, with parents Whitney Sr. and Laura, and children (L-R) Eleanor, Whitney, Arnita. Arnita is filmmaker Bonnie Boswell’s mother.

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