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Andrew J. Young

Civil Rights Ambassador

We as Americans are the champions of human rights. It's a revelation from God to our Founding Fathers.

Andrew Jackson Young, Jr. was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. Although public facilities in New Orleans were racially segregated, as in other Southern cities, the Crescent City’s heritage of ethnic diversity gave Andrew, Jr. early experience in dealing with people from a variety of backgrounds. His father, Andrew Young, Sr., was a dentist whose patients included the city’s best-known African American residents, such as musician Louis Armstrong and Olympian Ralph Metcalfe. He and his wife, Daisy Fuller Young, instilled their children with pride and self-respect. The elder Young hired a professional prizefighter to teach his sons to defend themselves so they could not be easily intimidated.

The fastest men alive: Jesse Owens (1913-1980) and Ralph Metcalfe (1910-1978) dominated track and field events at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Owens and Metcalfe were boyhood heroes to Andrew Young. In the 1970s, Metcalfe and Young served in the U.S. Congress together. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
The fastest men alive: Jesse Owens (1913-1980) and Ralph Metcalfe (1910-1978) dominated track and field events at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Owens and Metcalfe were boyhood heroes to Andrew Young. During the 1970s, Ralph Metcalfe and Andrew Young served in the United States Congress together. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

As a youngster, Andrew Young, Jr.’s main interest was athletics, particularly swimming, and track and field, but he also excelled academically. He graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C. when he was only 19. Although the Youngs were a religious family, young Andrew did not feel called to the ministry until after graduation, when a spiritual experience on a mountaintop led him to explore his religious feelings. He accompanied his pastor to a youth conference in Texas, where he was asked to volunteer for a national youth program based at Camp Mack, Indiana. There he was exposed for the first time to the philosophy of nonviolence, as taught by Mahatma Gandhi, the pacifist leader of India’s independence movement.

Andrew Young and his wife Jean Childs Young (1933-1994). "It was only with her help that I did everything," Andrew Young says. "If Martin and I had not married the little country girls we married from Alabama, you never would have heard our names." (City of Atlanta)
Andrew Young and his wife, Jean Childs Young. “It was only with her help that I did everything,” Young says. “If Martin and I had not married the little country girls from Alabama, you never would have heard our names.”

He continued his volunteer work with the National Council of Churches, which assigned him to the New England area. While temporarily housed at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, he sat in on a number of classes and was soon offered a scholarship to study theology full-time. His decision to pursue the ministry brought him into serious conflict with his father for the first time. Andrew Young, Sr. had hoped his son would follow him into dentistry rather than the ministry. Andrew, Jr. hoped to try out for the 1952 Olympics as well, but when the National Council of Churches asked him to establish a summer Bible school and youth recreation program in Marion, Alabama, he answered the call. In Marion, he made the acquaintance of the Childs family, and saw a picture of their daughter Jean, who was away at college. Her picture — and her sports trophies — made a deep impression. “I decided, even before I met her, and before I saw her, that this was going to be my wife.”

He met her soon enough, and when Jean told him she was going to Europe for the summer to do volunteer work with refugee children, he decided to follow her. He worked building a refugee center in Ried, Austria, while she worked in nearby Linz. Between work assignments, they traveled and visited Jean’s sister in Berlin. Andrew and Jean married in 1954, while Andrew completed his studies at Hartford Seminary. The following year, he was ordained as a minister of the United Church of Christ.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. turns to answer a question from his seat in Geneva, May 28, 1967, as delegate to "Pacem In Terris II" unofficial conference on problems of peace, convoked by U.S. Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. At left is his aide, Andrew Young of Atlanta, Georgia. (AP Photo)
May 28, 1967: The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. turns to answer a question from his seat in Geneva, as delegate to “Pacem In Terris II” unofficial conference on the problems of peace, convoked by U.S. Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. At left is his aide, Andrew Young of Atlanta, and to Dr. King’s right is his wife, Coretta.

Momentous changes were underway in the United States. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled — in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas — that separate schools were inherently unequal. This and subsequent decisions eliminated the legal justification for segregation. African Americans now demanded the long-denied rights guaranteed them in the Constitution. The year Andrew Young was ordained, a seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus to a white man, as local law required, and was arrested. When her neighbors organized to defend her and boycott the city’s bus system, they chose as their leader a newly appointed 26-year-old pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr.

After graduating from Hartford Seminary, Andrew Young was assigned to pastor a small church in Thomasville, Georgia. For years, discriminatory laws and intimidation had prevented African American citizens from voting in Thomasville. When Andrew Young organized a voter registration drive, the Ku Klux Klan mobilized to intimidate black voters. Young enlisted the town’s largest employers and persuaded the local authorities to bar the Klan from entering black neighborhoods.

March 1965: In the cold and rain, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young lead African American citizens to the county courthouse in Selma, Alabama. The struggle to register black voters in Selma was one of the hardest fought episodes in the Civil Rights Movement, but it led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
March 1965: Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young lead African American citizens to the county courthouse in Selma, Alabama. The struggle to register black voters in Selma was one of the hardest fought episodes in the Civil Rights Movement, but it led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1957, Andrew Young and Martin Luther King, Jr. met for the first time. Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott, had gone to high school with Jean Young; the two pastors became fast friends. Later that year, the Youngs accepted an assignment from the National Council of Churches in New York City. There, Andrew Young participated in a weekly national television program, Look Up and Live, which aired on CBS on Sunday mornings. A religious program designed to reach a broad audience, including young people and secular viewers, Andrew Young appeared on the show from 1957 to 1961.

The Kings had relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, where Dr. King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Council to mobilize people of faith to fight for human rights and civil equality. In 1961, the Youngs too moved to Atlanta. Andrew Young became one of Dr. King’s principal lieutenants. Working closely together, King and Young led desegregation movements in Birmingham, Alabama, in St. Augustine, Florida, and in its home base of Atlanta. King and the SCLC particularly relied on Young’s skills as a negotiator in their dealings with local governments and the white-dominated business community. Despite his diplomatic gifts, local authorities resisted calls for desegregation, and Young was jailed in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama following civil rights demonstrations there.

Young participated in the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. The following year, Young was appointed Executive Director of the SCLC. He joined Dr. King on the march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965, which resulted in the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act, empowering the federal government to prosecute cases of voter discrimination. Young followed Dr. King to Memphis, Tennessee to support the city’s striking sanitation workers, and was with his friend at the Lorraine Motel when Dr. King was murdered on April 4, 1968.

April 4, 1968: Memphis police join Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Martin Luther King, Jr. lies unconscious at their feet, felled by an assassin's bullet. He never regained consciousness. (Photo by Joseph Louw/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
April 4, 1968: Memphis police join Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Dr. King lies mortally wounded at their feet, felled by assassin’s bullet, and never regained consciousness.
Andrew Young and others point Memphis police in the direction of the shot that felled Martin Luther King, Jr. The wounded civil rights leader is still lying where he fell. (Photo by Joseph Louw/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Andrew Young and others point Memphis police in the direction of the shot that felled Martin Luther King, Jr. The wounded civil rights leader is still lying where he fell. (Photo by Joseph Louw/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

In the tumultuous years that followed, Young remained one of the most visible leaders of the nonviolent movement. While other activists became hopelessly disillusioned with the possibility of peaceful change, Andrew Young redoubled his efforts to make the American system of democracy work for all its people. Returning to Atlanta, Georgia, where he had worked for many years, he ran for the United States Congress in 1970 and was narrowly defeated. Two years later, he ran again; this time he was successful, and became the first African American to be elected to Congress from the Deep South in the 20th century. Young served with distinction in the House of Representatives and was re-elected in 1974 and 1976.

March 1970: Reverend Andrew Young, Executive Vice President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, announces his candidacy for Congress. Young ran in Georgia's 5th District, which includes the city of Atlanta and most of Fulton County. He is seated with Coretta Scott King, his wife Jean, and Georgia State Representative Julian Bond. Mrs. King and Mrs. Young had known each other since high school. Young lost his first race for Congress in 1970, but came back and won the seat two years later. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
1970: Andrew Young, Executive Vice President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, announces his candidacy for Congress. Young ran in Georgia’s 5th District, which includes the city of Atlanta. He is seated with Coretta Scott King, his wife Jean, and Georgia State Representative Julian Bond. Mrs. King and Mrs. Young had known each other since high school. Young lost his first race for Congress in 1970, but won the seat two years later.

Congressman Young was an active supporter of former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. When Carter took office as President in 1977, he appointed Andrew Young to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Ambassador Young became the face of the administration’s ambitious policy of engagement with developing countries and support for human rights around the world. Young’s time at the UN was a particularly stormy one, as the U.S. attempted to resolve a series of intractable regional conflicts. Young facilitated a peace settlement in Rhodesia that brought an end to white minority rule and empowered the black majority of the country, now known as Zimbabwe. In white-ruled South Africa, the U.S. supported an international arms embargo against the white minority government, but stopped short of full economic sanctions. Young also participated in the delicate diplomacy that led to the Panama Canal Treaty, in which control of the Canal Zone was finally returned to the Republic of Panama, relieving a source of long-standing tension between the United States and her sister Republics in Central America.

January 30, 1977: Andrew Young takes office as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter look on as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall administers the oath of office. (AP Images)
1977: Andrew Young takes office as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter look on as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall administers the oath of office. (AP)

Young’s greatest diplomatic challenge came in the pursuit of peace in the Middle East. In 1978, President Carter successfully brokered the Camp David Peace Accord, making peace between Israel and Egypt. Meanwhile, the United Nations was studying the conflicting claims of Israel and the Palestinians. When it was reported that Young had met privately with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in New York, in an apparent reversal of the President’s previously stated policy, the administration’s critics demanded Young’s resignation. Young was trying to forestall a proposal in the UN Security Council calling for Palestinian statehood, a resolution he would have vetoed, as the U.S. representative. Young believed he was doing his duty as his country’s ambassador, but the political pressure became too great a distraction for the Carter administration, and in August 1979, at the President’s request, Young stepped down. In his last month in office, Carter awarded Andrew Young the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

February 5, 1990: Andrew Young, former Mayor of Atlanta, announces his candidacy for Governor of Georgia, with his wife Jean at his side. Young lost the state's Democratic primary in 1990, but continued his advocacy outside of the political process. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
1990: Andrew Young, former Mayor of Atlanta, announces his candidacy for Governor of Georgia, with wife, Jean. Young lost the state’s Democratic primary in 1990, but continued his advocacy outside of the political process.

Returning to Atlanta, Young found another way to serve. The city’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, was retiring, barred by term limits from running for reelection in 1981. Urged by many friends in Atlanta, including Coretta Scott King, Young entered the race and won 55 percent of the vote. As Mayor, he drew $70 billion of private investment to the city and was easily reelected in 1985, receiving 80 percent of the votes cast. He brought the Democratic National Convention to the city in 1988, and initiated a campaign to host the Olympic Games. Although Atlanta’s bid was considered a long shot, in 1990, one year after Andrew Young left office as Mayor of Atlanta, it was announced that the 1996 Olympics would be held there.

The next years were difficult for Andrew Young and his family. A spirited campaign for Governor of Georgia ended in defeat in 1990. Jean Young was diagnosed with cancer, and after a brave struggle, she died in 1994. She was survived by their four children.

Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young speaks at the 2011 dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. (AP Images/Cliff Owen)
Andrew Young speaks at the 2011 dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington. (AP Images)

In 1996, the Summer Olympics put the eyes of the world on Atlanta, and the city Andrew Young had led for eight years proved itself ready for its moment in the spotlight. That year, Andrew Young married Carolyn McClain and gradually returned to public life. He has written a number of books including A Way Out of No Way (1994), and An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America (1998). In 2000, Andrew Young undertook a one-year term as President of the National Council of Churches, the organization he had first served as a 19-year-old volunteer. In 2003, he created the Andrew Young Foundation to support and promote education, health, leadership and human rights in the United States, Africa and the Caribbean.

Today, a number of institutions in Georgia bear Andrew Young’s name. Andrew Young International Boulevard runs past Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, Morehouse College is home to the Andrew Young Center for International Studies, and for many years, Young himself has been a professor at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. A half-century after the heroic days of the Civil Rights Movement, as the anniversaries of the historic milestones were celebrated, Andrew Young remained greatly in demand as a speaker for his memories of those tumultuous times.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1983

Andrew Young was the pastor of a small country church when he faced down the Ku Klux Klan to organize a voter registration drive in South Georgia. He became the leading negotiator for the national Civil Rights Movement, enduring death threats, beatings and jail time to win for African Americans the rights of full citizenship they were promised by the Constitution, rights they had been long denied. Alongside his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., he marched through the most dramatic episodes of the great struggle: from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the streets of Birmingham and Selma, and finally to Memphis, where an assassin’s bullet ended Dr King’s life.

Young fought on, winning election to the United States House of Representatives, as the first African American to be elected to Congress from the Deep South since Reconstruction. As a Congressman, he supported a little-known former Governor of Georgia in his long-shot bid for the presidency, and when Jimmy Carter became President, he named Andrew Young to serve as his country’s Ambassador to the United Nations. At the UN, Andrew Young maintained his commitment to universal human rights, plunging into the most challenging controversies of the day, including the liberation struggles of Southern Africa and the search for peace in the Middle East.

He capped his career in public service with two terms as Mayor of Atlanta. Once again, he proved himself an able negotiator, balancing the interests of the business community with the needs of the city’s poorest citizens, completing the city’s transformation from a battleground of the Civil Rights era to the proud showplace of the modern South. Half a century after the battles of the 1960s, Andrew Young remains an outspoken champion for the rights of all mankind.

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You’ve done so many things in your life, but we can trace a lot of them back to your involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s and ’60s. How did you first decide to become involved with the movement?

Andrew Young: Well, in a way, my wife Jean decided.

When we married, she was determined that she wanted to stay in the South, that she wanted to be a teacher. Now the interesting thing was I had no real nasty racial experiences growing up. I could deal with the segregation, and I could always slide by and get along. That wasn’t true of her, it wasn’t true of Coretta Scott King. Her family had earned land out of the Reconstruction, so they were a wealthy rural family that had three or four businesses. When she was about 12 years old, white people found a way to swindle her family, her grand-uncle, out of the businesses, and on some kind of trumped-up charges. It was so depressing to her grandfather that he committed suicide, and her daddy became an alcoholic. And her mother, who was a teacher — her superintendent, realizing she was vulnerable and very attractive, tried to flirt with her and she hit him with an umbrella to beat him off. She got fired and was blacklisted and had to go two counties away to find a job. So that when Jean was like 12 years old, she was not only walking three miles to school, most of the time running, but she had to come home and cook and take care of her father, and she was very bitter about race. Now, Coretta had the same kind of experience. I mean, Coretta’s father had three different businesses that were destroyed by white people: a trucking company, a sawmill, and a grocery store. They were all sabotaged or burned because it was a county that resented black people having progress, being able to progress and being hard workers. So both Coretta and Jean were more committed, I think, to get into the struggle to do something about race than either me or Martin.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta in December 1964. They are preparing to depart for Oslo, Norway, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. (AP Images)
1964: Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, as they depart for Oslo, Norway, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. (AP Images)

Do you think that Coretta pulled Martin into the Civil Rights Movement?

Andrew Young: I don’t think she pulled him in.

I think he chose Montgomery, Alabama for all the wrong reasons. He wanted to finish his Ph.D. dissertation, and he picked the most conservative church in the South, where he’d have the most time to devote to his writing, and the least controversy. He was offered jobs in Atlanta and Philadelphia — and he turned all of those down — where they saw his leadership potential. He picked the most conservative job he was offered. He went to Montgomery to get away from the controversy. Atlanta was very aggressive. W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, Whitney Young were all in Atlanta. His father and his grandfather were both civil rights leaders in Georgia. And they wanted — Dr. Mays wanted — him to take over as president of Morehouse College. He was trying to get away from all of that leadership responsibility by picking Montgomery.

The Rev. Andrew Young and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, at a 1964 press conference. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
1964: The Rev. Andrew Young and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

So what pushed Dr. King into a leadership role?

Andrew Young: Nothing. I mean God. That is the only explanation.

Two weeks after he finished his dissertation and mailed it back to Boston University, Rosa Parks sat down in a bus. He didn’t know anything about it, he didn’t plan it. But there was a group of women who were teachers at Tuskegee Institute and Alabama State University in Montgomery. It was kind of a progressive women’s club. They had been very upset about the way people were treated on the buses. Several young black women had been jailed, beaten, brutalized on the buses. But they didn’t feel as though they were — they were looking for the right person to start a protest. Well, Rosa Parks was one of the sweetest women in the world. She never raised her voice, everybody in town respected her. When they put her off the bus and took her to jail, they had their candidate. These women went to E.D. Nixon, who was the head of the NAACP, and they said, “Look, if you have the big Baptist minister or the big Methodist minister head this movement, we’re going to have the same old rivalry we’ve always had. Why don’t you try to convince them to let this young man…” — now he was 26 then — “Let this young man lead the movement.”

Did he balk at that responsibility?

When they were having the discussion and the vote, I understand, he was back in the back, running the mimeograph machine, doing flyers for the boycott. So when they came and got him and he came back in the meeting, and they told him he had been elected the president, it was like 6:30, 7:00 at night. He had one hour to prepare to get up and give a speech that had to be militant enough to galvanize people, but it had to be reasoned, and passive enough to keep people’s anger from boiling over into violence. The only reason we know about that was Coretta had just had her baby, Yolanda, and she couldn’t come. She got the choir director from Alabama A&M to take one of these big two-reel tape recorders, because she didn’t know what he was going to say. He didn’t have time. But she got — I think his name was Robert Williams — to go there and record the speech. And if you want to hear it, the best way to hear it is by ordering The Autobiography of Martin Luther King by Clayborne Carson of Stanford University. What he’s done is, it’s an oral history, but Martin’s words are read by LeVar Burton, until it’s time for the speeches, and then they have the actual recording of his voice. So when you read about the context in which this speech emerged, it’s miraculous. But all of the themes that later occurred in the March on Washington, his Nobel Prize speech and the Mountaintop speech, you can see glimpses of that. Not even whole sentences, but you can see that at 26 years old, this was the seed of a powerful international voice.

Andrew Young: I didn’t know him then. That was 1955. I didn’t meet him until two years later, in 1957, when he was already a big shot and I was pastoring a little country church in South Georgia. The Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity invited us to Talladega College in Alabama for a religious emphasis week. I always said they invited him and they didn’t think he would come, so they invited me as a backup, and it turned out we both showed up. That’s when we met in 1957, and when my wife was with me, he started talking to her and realized that she and Coretta had known each other in high school. So he invited us to stop back at his home as we were driving back to Georgia. So we stopped off and had dinner with him. I remember that I knew who he was and I’d read about him, and I kept trying to talk civil rights or theology, or trying to — I don’t know what I was trying to do — but he wouldn’t talk about anything but his baby. He was crazy about this little girl. Of course, I had a three-month-old daughter too, so we met as fathers who married women from the same little country town.

Activist and family man, Andrew Young observes the Poor People's Campaign Solidarity Day at the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C., June 1968. Marchers had walked to the capital from Quitman County, Mississippi, the poorest county in the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had planned the campaign, had been murdered only two months before. (© William James Warren/Science Faction/Corbis)
1968: Andrew Young observes the Poor People’s Campaign Solidarity Day at the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C. Marchers had walked to the capital from Quitman County, Mississippi, the poorest county in the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had planned the campaign, had been murdered only two months before.

How did you start to work with Dr. King? How did you get involved in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference?

Keys to success — Courage

We had been shopping in Albany, Georgia, and we were driving back, Jean and me, with a three-month-old baby in a bassinet in the back seat of this little Nash Rambler. We go around the curve in this little town called Doerun, Georgia, and I was going pretty fast and there were people all over the streets. I slowed down quickly, and there must have been a hundred people in sheets with their pointed hats. They didn’t have their face masks on, but I turned the corner and I was in the middle of a Klan rally. I realized that they were coming to Thomasville because I had put up signs about a voter registration drive. And I expected to — I was prepared for it — and so I said to Jean, I said, “Look…” And she’s a country girl. One of the things we used to do on dates is go out in the backyard and shoot tin cans. So she was a good shot. And I said, “Look, I’m going to try to reason with these people if they come to visit us, and I want you to sit in the window and just point our rifle at the guy I’m talking to.” See, I’d been to theology school and I was —  I mean, I grew up in the Second World War, where Reinhold Niebuhr and others criticized the church for being pacifist. So I wanted her to sit up there, and we were talking then about negotiating from a position of strength. So I said, “You point the gun at him, and then I can reason with him as a brother. Because if he takes me out, you take him out.” And she said, “I’m not going to do that.” I said, “What do you mean? What are you going to do?” She said, “I’m not going to point a gun at a human being.” I said, “That’s not a human being, that’s the Ku Klux Klan!” She said, “Look, don’t you forget it. Under that sheet is the heart of a child of God.” And my idea was, “Damn, woman! What kind of woman did I marry?” And she said, “No, we’re not going to point guns. We’re not.” She said, “If you don’t believe in what you preach, we need to quit now.” And so she forced me to rethink it.

Keys to success — Preparation

I called one of the leaders of the community, and he suggested that we go downtown to see the Mayor, who ran the local hardware store. And while we were there, he called the head of Sunnyland Packing Company and Flowers Bakery. They were the two largest employers in the town. They decided with us that they would not let the Klan come into the black community and intimidate us and interfere with our voter registration drive. But they would respect the Klan’s right to have a meeting on the courthouse steps. So that was my first test of nonviolence. What it taught me was that the best way to avoid violence is to head it off. Not wait for a confrontation where violence is almost inevitable, but that you’ve got to be more aggressive in pursuing what Gandhi called “organized, aggressive, disciplined goodwill.”

When you think of nonviolence, it’s not a passive thing, so the aggressive action of going to see the Mayor and mobilizing the business community is exactly what I did. This was 1956.