'Independent Lens' remembers civil rights leader Whitney Young

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Monday, Feb. 18 (check local listings), PBS' "Independent Lens" airs "The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights," a profile of one of the most celebrated and controversial leaders of the civil rights era, who went from segregated Kentucky to head of the National Urban League.

Young gained allies among business and government leaders and advised Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, shuttling between the streets of Harlem and the halls of power. His close ties with powerful white Americans garnered him criticism from some and made him the target of an assassination attempt, described as part of a "black revolutionary plot."

Bonnie Boswell, Young's niece, is executive producer of the film; Christine Khalafian and Taylor Hamilton direct.

"One of the main reasons I wanted to do this film," Boswell tells Zap2it, "was because I have such respect for people who work behind the scenes, who don't always get the credit, because they're not in front, but who make sure that the thing happens.

"I think Uncle Whitney really played that role so beautifully within the civil rights movement. If you look at the March on Washington, for example, which we're about to honor with its [50th] anniversary coming up, he really played a role in the inner circle of making sure that happened as smoothly as it did."

Because of his relationship with Nixon, when Young drowned at age 49 on March 11, 1971, while attending a conference in Lagos, Nigeria, the president arranged to bring his body back to the U.S. and delivered the eulogy at his funeral.

"There was a sense of great loss," says Boswell, "and with him being in Africa at the time, there was a sense of being able to reach out and bring back the fallen hero."

Boswell has strong memories of the funeral, saying, "It was complicated for me, because I was a young Black Power advocate, trying to emotionally weigh Nixon being there, and my feeling about that was really a challenge. But I just was quite a good girl and worked it out with myself later."
Photo/Video credit: PBS