Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

May 08, 2018

Remembering Whitney M. Young Jr.’s Landmark Speech

At the 1968 AIA Convention, Young chastised architects for failing to support civil rights. A half century later, black practitioners revisit his text as the benchmark for a continuing struggle.


Architecture, Germane Barnes, Jennifer Newsom, Kathryn Prigmore, Mabel Wilson, Marcia Young Cantarella, Philip Freelon, Sharon Sutton, V. Mitch McEwen, Whitney M. Young Jr., Zena Howard

This is the original text of Young’s 1968 speech, interspersed with comments from contemporary practitioners.

If I seem to repeat things you have heard before, I do not apologize, any more than I think a physician would apologize for giving inoculations. Sometimes we have to give repeated vaccinations, and we continue to do so until we observe that it has taken effect. One need only take a casual look at this audience to see that we have a long way to go in this field of integration of the architects. I almost feel like Mr. Stanley looking for Dr. Livingston—in reverse—in Africa. I think I did see one and wanted to rush up and say: Dr. Livingston, I presume!

Philip Freelon: “I encourage you to put the ‘reaction’ question to some of the 98 percent of our profession who are not black.”

Sharon Sutton: “The field exhibits a continuing investment in serving a moneyed clientele and a continuing lack of attention to the needs of impoverished communities.”

[A]s a profession, you are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.

Now, you have a nice, normal escape hatch in your historical ethical code or something that says after all, you are the designers and not the builders; your role is to give people what they want.

Now, that’s a nice, easy way to cop out. But I have read about architects who had courage, who had a social sensitivity, and I can’t help but wonder about an architect that builds some of the public housing that I see in the cities of this country. How he could even compromise his own profession and his own sense of values to have built 35- or 40- story buildings, these vertical slums, and not even put a restroom in the basement and leave enough recreational space for about 10 kids when there must be 5,000 in the building. That architects as a profession wouldn’t as a group stand up and say something about this, is disturbing to me.

Zena Howard: “Oftentimes our ‘escape hatch’ today is to blame others while we continue to design buildings that predominantly serve the elite or our own egos.”

Jennifer Newsom: “Architecture is a service profession. We each need to answer the question: What are you working in service of?”

You are employers, you are key people in the planning of our cities today. You share the responsibility for the mess we are in terms of the white noose around the central city. It didn’t just happen. We didn’t just suddenly get this situation. It was carefully planned.

I went back recently and looked at ads when they first started building subdivisions in this country. The first new subdivision—easy access to town, good shopping centers, good schools, no Negroes, no Jews allowed—that was the first statement. Then they decided in New York that that was cutting the market too close, so they said the next day, “No Negroes allowed.” And then they got cute when they thought everybody had the message, and they said “restricted, exclusive neighborhood, homogenous neighborhood.”

Everybody knows what those words mean. Even the Federal Government participated.

Mabel Wilson: “My current research is trying to determine in what ways architects are productive of white racial hegemony.”

Germane Barnes: “Similar to the young student mentioned in the speech, I too dealt with an absence of black role models in academia.”

They said [there] must be compatible neighborhoods for FHA mortgages, homogenous neighborhoods. The Federal Government participated in building the nice middle-class housing in the suburbs, putting all the public housing in the central city. It took a great deal of skill and creativity and imagination to build the kind of situation we have, and it is going to take skill and imagination and creativity to change it. We are going to have to have people as committed to doing the right thing, to inclusiveness, as we have in the past to exclusiveness.

You are also here as educators. Many of you are in educational institutions. I took the time to call up a young man who just finished at Yale and I said “What would you say if you were making the speech I’m supposed to make today?” Again, not quite as sedate and as direct as your young student here because he did have some strong observations to make. He did want you to become more relevant; he did want you to begin to speak out as a profession, he did want in his own classroom to see more Negroes, he wanted to see more Negro teachers. He wanted while his classwork was going on for you somehow as educators to get involved in the community around you.

When you go to a city—Champagne-Urbana, the University of Illinois is about the only major institution and within two or three blocks are some of the worse slums I have seen in the country. It is amazing how within a stone’s throw of the School of Architecture you have absolutely complete indifference—unless you have a federal grant for research, and even then it’s to study the problem.

Victor Jones: “Young’s message remains hauntingly alive 50 years later as I, and many others, try to not lose our heads over the racial inclusion we still DO NOT SEE in architecture.”

I hope you accept my recommendation for a moratorium on the study of the Negro in this country. He has been dissected and analyzed, horizontally and vertically and diagonally. Thank you, very much. And if there are any further studies—I’m not anti-intellectual—I hope we’ll make them on white people. And that instead of studying the souls of black people we’ll be studying the souls of white people; instead of the anatomy of Watts, we’ll do an anatomy of Cicero, an anatomy of Bronxville.

What’s wrong with the people in these neighborhoods? Why do they want—themselves just one generation removed from welfare or in many cases just one generation within the country, where they have come here sometimes escaping hate and have come here and acquired freedom—why do they want to turn their backs and say in Cicero, “Al Capone can move in, but Ralph Bunche can’t?” Why are they so insecure? Why do people want to live in these bland, sterile, antiseptic, gilded ghettos, giving sameness to each, compounding mediocrity in a world that is 75 percent nonwhite, in a world where in 15 minutes you can take a space ship and fly from Kennedy to South Africa? Why would anybody want to let their children grow up in this kind of situation? I think this kind of affluent peasant ought to be studied. These are people that have acquired middle-class incomes because of strong labor unions and because they are living in an unprecedented affluent period. But in things aesthetic and educational and cultural, they leave a lot to be desired. They wouldn’t know the difference between Karl Marx and Groucho Marx.

V. Mitch McEwen: “It speaks volumes that the magazine that represents the professional wing of U.S. architecture cannot be bothered to commission the words of a black person in America about the state of black architects in America.”

This is where our problem is. We can move next door to Rockefeller in Tarrytown, but I couldn’t move into Bronxville. Any white pimp or prostitute can move into Bronxville. A Jewish person could hardly move into Bronxville, incidentally.

As a profession, you ought to be taking stands on these kinds of things. If you don’t as architects stand up and endorse Model Cities and appropriations, if you don’t speak out for rent supplements or the housing bill calling for a million homes, if you don’t speak out for some kind of scholarship program that will enable you to consciously and deliberately seek to bring in minority people who have been discriminated against in many cases, either kept out because of your indifference or couldn’t make it—it takes seven to 10 years to become an architect—then you will have done a disservice to the memory of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bob Kennedy and most of all, to yourselves.

You are part of this society. It is not easy. I am not suggesting the easy road, but the time has come when no longer the kooks and crackpots speak for America. The decent people have to learn to speak up, and you shouldn’t have to be the victim to feel for other people. I make no pretense that it is easy.

Marcia Young Cantarella: “The question is how can you see yourselves solving problems that may not be fully of your creation but may well be created by your clients.”

Finally, let me dwell on your role as men, because I think this probably more basic than anything. Sure, you’re architects. You’re a lot of things—you’re Republicans, Democrats, and a few John Birchers. You’re a good many things but you’re a man and you’re a father. I would hope that somehow you would understand that this issue, more than any other of human rights, today separates the phony from the real, the man from the boy, more than anything else.

Baseball’s Rickey solved the problem of attitudes and how long it takes. I agree with you that it takes a long time to change attitudes. Doesn’t take any time to change them overnight. When he brought Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers, there was this ballplayer who said I’m not going to play with that “nigger.” He thought Rickey would flap like most employers. I imagine most architects thought he would say that he’d pull away.

But he didn’t know Rickey very well. Rickey was kind. He said, “Give him three or four days.” Well, at the end of a few days, Robinson had five home runs, stolen many bases and this fellow was reassessing his options. He could go back to Alabama and maybe make $20 a week picking cotton, or stay there with the Dodgers and continue to work and, now it looked like Jackie would get him into the World Series and a bonus of $5,000, which he did. The only color he was concerned with was green.

We see it happening in Vietnam. White boys from Mississippi in Vietnam develop more respect and admiration for their black sergeant in one week because they too have made their own assessment and have decided to be liberal white boys from Mississippi instead of a dead white bigot. They’re interested in survival and the sergeant is skilled in the art of surviving, and they say “Mr. Sergeant”—changed overnight.

Why is it that the best example of American democracy is found in the muck and mire of Vietnam? Why is it that the greatest freedom the black man has is the freedom to die in Vietnam; and as they die, why do his loved ones, their kids and their wives and their mothers have to fight for the right to buy a house where they want to?

There is something wrong with that kind of society.

Yolande Daniels: “This is not an issue of righting the past; instead it is an issue of building equitable and just society in the present and for the future.”

So, what’s at stake then is your country, your profession, and you as a decent civilized human being. Anatole France once said, “I prefer the error and enthusiasm to the indifference of wisdom.” For a society that has permitted itself the luxury of an excess of callousness and indifference, we can now afford to permit ourselves the luxury of an excess of caring and of concern. It is easier to cool a zealot than it is to warm a corporation.

Kathryn Prigmore: “Thankfully, architects are making progress toward overcoming ‘our thunderous silence’ and our ‘complete irrelevance.'”

An ancient Greek scholar was once asked to predict when the Greeks would achieve victory in Athens. He replied, “We shall achieve victory in Athens and justice in Athens when those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are.”

And so shall it be with this problem of human rights in this country.