Remembering the March on Washington and Whitney Young

Incredibly, tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, and PBS and Independent Lens are pleased to honor the occasion with a rebroadcast of the illuminating documentary The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights. The program will air 10 PM* on Tuesday night, August 27th or Wednesday night, August 28th (*check local listings for exact day/time in your area).

Marching on Washington, 1963, with MLK at left and Whitney Young on right

Marching on Washington, 1963, with MLK at left and Whitney Young 3rd from right.

The Powerbroker filmmaker Bonnie Boswell is Whitney Young’s niece and has had a long, award-winning career in journalism. A graduate of Harvard and MIT, Boswell won a Golden Mike Award for a one-hour news program she created for NBC, has been a news reporter for NBC in Los Angeles, co-host of a national cable television news talk show, and producer and feature reporter for the “Tavis Smiley Show” on NPR.  We spoke with Boswell as we remember the March on Washington and revisit the legacy of Whitney Young.

Most people have heard and remember Martin Luther King’s unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech, but not as many remember that Whitney Young gave a passionate speech at the March on Washington, too. 

Bonnie Boswell: Yes, Whitney Young made it clear that while the different civil rights groups had different strategies, they were united in securing the goal of first class citizenship now. He also said Congress needed to pass legislation that would correct the damage of past discrimination so “blacks could march from ghettos to wholesome neighborhoods, from segregated, ill-equipped schools to integrated, well-equipped facilities.”

You went to school in Kentucky and then in Chicago and dealt with both segregation and desegregation. As a young person then what do you remember of the March and how did it affect you?

Bonnie Boswell with her uncle, Whitney Young Jr.

Bonnie Boswell with her uncle, Whitney Young Jr.

I was very excited to see my uncle on television at the March.  That was my main memory — sitting with my grandparents, Whitney Sr. and Laura Young, and watching “Junior,” as Whitney was called at home, play such an important role in this historic event. I was very young, but, somehow, I thought this was the end of racism in America.  It seemed like such a victory.

What do you think younger audiences today who understand racism but maybe don’t completely relate to segregated America can get out of learning about the Civil Rights Era and Whitney Young’s story?

Clearly, we are a long way away from the kind of inclusion and promise of equal opportunity that is America’s dream.  In fact, income disparity is at an all-time high.  The only countries with greater disparity, according to the World Economic Forum, are Chile, Turkey, and Mexico.  The point is that the “Civil Rights” movement was really a justice movement. Young’s genius was that he was able to articulate the concerns of the poor to those in power. He helped build bridges between rich and poor. Younger people can learn a great deal from him about the importance of doing that.

Watch the trailer for The Powerbroker:

Watch Spotlight on Civil Rights Leader Whitney Young, Jr. on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

To learn more about the film go to its official Independent Lens page.


See also: A special broadcast of The March, a PBS documentary about this pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, which premieres tonight, Tuesday, August 27 at 9 PM ET (again, check local listings).

Bonus: PBS station WGBH’s staff has compiled from its archives all 15 hours of the 1/4″ tape recordings made during the ERN (Educational Radio Network) broadcast of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They will stream it online in its entirety beginning at 9am on August 28th, available here.

Update: First Lady Michelle Obama this week called The Powerbroker “truly a wonderful piece” that is “very moving, very powerful.” See this story for more from the First Lady on Whitney Young’s story, and here’s a clip of her introducing the film.

About Craig Phillips

ITVS Interactive Editor, based in San Francisco.
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  • Antonia Zima

    Thank you for the program about Whitney Young on Independent Lens :The Powerbroker. Though I grew up in that era, I didn’t even know who he was or about his great contribution to the civil rights movement! What an amazing man. I learned a lot about the movement in general from a different perspective.

  • Joe Cap

    I never heard of Whitney Young till tonight and that’s a shame because he was such a great man way ahead of his time , very impressive man .