When she was in college in the 1960s, Bonnie Boswell thought her social worker uncle Whitney Young Jr., was old-fashioned.
Boswell, who attended Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was militant, sported an Afro hairstyle and dashiki, and took part in public student protests.
Her uncle, a civil rights leader who was executive director of the National Urban League and later president of the National Association of Social Workers, preferred fighting social injustice by being a behind-the-scenes negotiator.
“I had some mixed feelings about his role as a moderate,” said Boswell, who wanted her uncle to come help storm the barricades at college protests. “I have grown in the appreciation of his role and how difficult it was walking the line between people like me and the white establishment that didn’t want to hear from people like us.”
Young drowned in 1971 in Lagos, Nigeria. He was just 49 years old.
Boswell went on to become an award-winning television reporter, producer, commentator and talk show host. She has also been on a mission for the last decade to bring to the screen her uncle’s often-forgotten contributions to the civil rights movement.
Her documentary, The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights, will air on PBS during Black History Month in February 2013, Boswell said. The film includes interviews with several legends of the civil rights era and beyond, including fellow social worker Dr. Dorothy I. Height, Julian Bond and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and other notables such as historian John Hope Franklin and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Young was one of the organizers of the March on Washington in 1963, the event where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. While at the Urban League, Young also pushed for more federal aid to blighted urban areas, encouraged corporations to hire more blacks, and advised presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.
Boswell said her uncle’s social work skills — being a mediator, building consensus, putting ego aside and bringing all sides to the table — were instrumental in helping him accomplish civil rights gains.
“I think the skill set that Uncle Whitney had — which I think was an extraordinary skill set — is the skill set of a social worker,” Boswell said. “Social workers know how to keep everyone at the table and get things done.”