Commemorating 50 years

Whitney M. Young Jr.’s 1968 AIA Convention speech

Whitney M. Young Jr addresses the crowd at the 1968 AIA national convention

Whitney M. Young Jr addresses the crowd at the 1968 AIA national convention

Early in 1968, AIA President Robert Durham, FAIA, extended an invitation to the executive director of the National Urban League, Whitney M. Young, Jr., inviting him to deliver a keynote speech at AIA’s National Convention in Portland, Oregon.

President Durham’s invitation came at a time of unprecedented turmoil. In the 1950s and ‘60s, federal money fueled urban renewal projects and the Interstate Highway Program. Intended to improve the conditions of the urban poor, the programs often uprooting entire neighborhoods and had the opposite effect. With a few exceptions, the architectural profession and AIA were silent in the face of the damage being done. Durham sought to change that by inviting Young, saying, “Seldom has there been such a broad public consciousness of the presence of a storm in human affairs.””

In giving the executive director of the National Urban League a keynote spotlight to address some of the most elemental root causes tearing America apart, AIA opened itself to a charismatic speaker whose leadership skills were legendary. Young’s fame as an inspirational and challenging speaker was well known. His moderate approach to matters of socioeconomic disenfranchisement gave him access to corporate leaders and the White House. This brought him to the attention of the Institute’s leadership at a time when the nation’s cities had broken out into violent spasms of armed rebellion over a lack of access to economic opportunity and discriminatory housing practices.

He delivered words that continue to challenge AIA, the profession, and indeed America’s vision of itself as a just society. Young had an important message for a profession he believed had the potential to make a positive difference in the lives of the marginalized and disenfranchised—if its architects chose to do so.

President Durham saw the possibility of a new, hopeful beginning. “It is nevertheless possible to hope that the final judgment of this year will be that it was a beginning of a bright day—a day in which men will have overcome the old dark problems of hate and prejudice, famine and disease, greed and misery.” His appearance in Portland was, to Young, a sign AIA and with it the profession were seeking a different, more engaged and constructive path. “By your invitation to me and by your attentiveness to an overly long set of remarks, I am convinced that you are well on your way to becoming as indignant as those who are hurt,” he said.

Young was not the only speaker to challenge the status quo. Lady Bird Johnson urged the profession to become “thoughtful political activists” and work for a “new conservation” concerned with the total human and community environment. A third speaker, economist Barbara Ward, warned of “violence, revolt, and collapse” in the nation’s cities in the face of inaction. But it was Young who had the most profound and lasting impact, warning that the “disinherited, disenfranchised, the poor, and the black are saying in no unmistakable terms that they intend to be in or nobody will be comfortably in.”

AIA’s response to Young’s message was immediate. At the Convention’s business session, two newly drafted resolutions were passed by the delegates. Resolution 10 set in motion the creation of a national scholarship program for members of “disadvantaged minority groups for the purpose of the study of architecture.” Since that time, over two thousand scholarships have been awarded to diverse young people seeking a career in architecture. Resolution 13 specifically referred to Young’s speech and called on architects to “take a positive stand and become personally involved in the issues of our day.”

Young would likely acknowledge positive change within the country and the architectural profession since his 1968 speech. But he would no doubt call to account both the country and the profession for not having yet achieved a truly inclusive and equitable society.  -Ray Rhinehart, Hon. AIA

In the years that followed Young’s historic speech, AIA has passed resolutions, expanded the Code of Ethics, held meetings, and inaugurated programs intended to foster a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable profession. Essays exploring Young’s message and AIA’s progress can be found below. You can also read the full speech here.

Image credits

Whitney M. Young Jr addresses the crowd at the 1968 AIA national convention

American Institute of Architects

Whitney Young, MLK, LBJ

Library of Congress

Whitney M. Young Jr. AIA Press Conference

American Institute of Architects