Whitney Young, Jr., born on July 31, 1921, in Kentucky, spent most of his career working to end employment discrimination in the South and turning the National Urban League from a relatively passive civil rights organization into one that aggressively fought for justice. He received a bachelor of science degree from Kentucky State College in 1941. From 1942 to 1944, while in the U.S. Army, he studied engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After his discharge, he received an MSW from the University of Minnesota (1947) and began to work with the Urban League in Minnesota.
During World War II, Young was assigned to a road construction crew of Black soldiers supervised by Southern White officers. After just 3 weeks, he was promoted from private to first sergeant, creating hostility on both sides. The situation propelled him into a career in race relations. A few years later, Young became president of the Urban League's Omaha, NE, branch and helped get Black workers into jobs previously reserved for Whites. In the process, he more than tripled the organization's paid membership.
He taught social work at the University of Nebraska and Creighton University. In his next position as dean of social work at Atlanta University, Young supported alumni in their boycott of the Georgia Conference of Social Welfare, which had a poor record of placing African Americans in good jobs. At the same time, he joined the NAACP and rose to become state president. After studying at Harvard University during 1960–1961, Young became president of the National Urban League at a time when the League was largely a northern-based social welfare agency concerned mainly with helping Black migrants from the South find jobs and adjust to their new northern industrial urban environment. Young, however, transformed it into a major civil rights organization and within 4 years had expanded the organization from 38 employees to 1,600 employees and from an annual budget of $325,000 to one that was $6.1 million. Young saw his role as one of trying to maintain contacts and liaison between increasingly polarizing White and Black groups in American society. He admonished Black civil rights protesters against violence and at the same time warned White decision makers that, unless substantial gains were made, violence from Blacks could be expected, if not condoned. During his 10-year tenure at the League, he initiated programs like "Street Academy," an alternative education system to prepare high school dropouts for college, and "New Thrust," an effort to help local black leaders identify and solve community problems. Young also pushed for federal aid to cities.
Young served on several presidential commissions. In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson appointed him a member of an American team to observe elections in Vietnam. In 1968, President Johnson honored Young with the highest civilian award—the Medal of Freedom.