SCOTT SIMON, host:
Andrew Young helped draft the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when he was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s executive assistant. Of course, Mr. Young later became a US congressman, US ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta.
Thanks very much for being with us.
Ambassador ANDREW YOUNG: Very good.
SIMON: I'd like to read something first. It's the language to the 15th Amendment that was ratified in 1870. It says Section 1, `The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.' Section 2, `The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.' It seems pretty complete. What was missing?
Amb. YOUNG: The thing that was missing in that was enforcement. There had been a gentlemen's agreement since Reconstruction that the federal government would not interfere with state governments. And in addition to no interference, there was just a complete lawlessness in Alabama and Mississippi, some parts of Georgia. In Georgia in 1963, we had three churches burned down simply because we were having meetings trying to register people to vote. In Mississippi, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were killed because they were advocating voter registration. Jimmy Lee Jackson in Selma, Alabama, or Marion, Alabama, returning veteran trying to get his grandfather--well, really not trying to even get him registered to vote, protecting him from an assault by the Alabama state troopers, was killed. So the 15th Amendment was being ignored, and you might say that we simply sought to get people to respect and enforce the 15th Amendment.
SIMON: These were times--I remember stories that an African American would show up to vote and they would be told, `Well, you have to recite the names of every state capital.'
Amb. YOUNG: Well, even more than that, it was worse than that. My younger brother in Louisiana was a graduate of Howard University's dental school. I had been a lieutenant in the Navy, came back to Louisiana. Took the state dental examination, passed it in two days. Though it was a four-day examination, he finished it and was passed--went over to register to vote and they told him he flunked the literacy test. I mean, there was just a systematic determination that black people would not be allowed to vote.
SIMON: We often when recollecting those days focus on the kind of malicious mischief of Southern states, but the federal government wasn't always good about enforcing voting rights in some of the Northern states for African-American voters either.
Amb. YOUNG: Well, the truth of it is that the federal government has been complicit in denying all Americans equal access to the vote. And one of the things that I've been forced to realize, that after 40 years, is that maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we fought for the wrong thing. It's embarrassing to me as an American citizen that with all that we've done with the Voting Rights Act and Congress and a series of administrations that have encouraged voting that we still vote less than 30 percent of the population, and Iraq votes 65 percent. And looking at why we don't vote, we begin to raise the question: Well, why do we vote on a Tuesday? And largely we vote on a Tuesday because that was a good day for farmers. Well, we're not farmers anymore. But we're thinking that on the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we really ought to take a look at how our democracy is working and whether it's a matter of racial discrimination or not. And I don't think it is because white people and Hispanics and Asians and everybody are equally as inconvenienced by the way we vote.
SIMON: Ambassador Young, when you look back on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and then take a look around the country now, can you see ways in which the country has changed because of that?
Amb. YOUNG: Oh, I think the country has changed. And that's the reason why I say if I had said to Martin Luther King in Selma that I wanted to be a congressman or maybe mayor of Atlanta one day, even the dreamer of the 20th century would have said to me, `Boy, you sick. It's not going to be that easy. Maybe you're children and grandchildren will have those opportunities, but we'll never be able to achieve that.' And he understood that we're lucky if we make it to Montgomery alive. And he never could have anticipated that we would have been as successful racially as we have been.
But the thing that we didn't get to, though, was to make the economy work. In fact, going back to Martin's Nobel Prize speech, he said, `We are engaged in a struggle against the triple evils threatening our democracy: racism, war and poverty.' Well, I think we addressed racism and not completely, but we are in the process of addressing war. War is not nearly as acceptable as it was when I was growing up, but poverty is still acceptable. We used to say in the South, where the rich white people lived, the streets were paved. Where the poor white people lived, the streets were blacktop. Where black people lived, the streets were red dirt. And at least we got enough votes to get all the streets paved. But I think the struggle continues. And this 40th anniversary, I don't want us to celebrate the success of 40 years ago. I want us to take a good look at what's going on now.
SIMON: Have you ever not been able to vote because you've been traveling or you couldn't get home by 7 or you were in Paris on important business when...
Amb. YOUNG: I really have been very diligent in respecting Election Days. I've missed some runoffs in local elections.
SIMON: Those are kind of scheduled spontaneously, too...
Amb. YOUNG: They are.
SIMON: ...when they're necessary.
Amb. YOUNG: And...
SIMON: It's hard to plan them.
Amb. YOUNG: ...too many people died to give me the right to vote for me to take it for granted. And I knew Medgar Evers. Martin Luther King was my best friend.
Amb. YOUNG: I knew Reverend Reeb. I knew Viola Luizzo. And so this is not something I can take lightly. The problem is that people have forgotten. And so I hope in looking back on these 40 years, we do remember the people who gave their lives, we do remember the students who came south and risked their lives, we do remember the young men in uniform who are fighting wars around the world for other people to have the right to vote when they're own parents are still having difficulty voting.
SIMON: Well, I hope you don't mind me using your titles, but Reverend/Ambassador/Mayor Young, thanks very much for being with us.
Amb. YOUNG: My pleasure.
SIMON: To listen to the full-length interview with Andrew Young, you can come to our Web site, npr.org.
You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.