An iconic Atlantan was just behind Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, crooning “We’ll Meet Again” on the series finale of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central Thursday night. Despite a busy schedule, former Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador Andrew Young says he didn’t hesitate for a moment about participating in the faux conservative news anchor’s finale. “Being there last night was part of what I call the Colbert phenomenon,” Young told me Friday morning during a phone call as he flew back from New York City. “He helped young people deal with the complexities and anxieties and threats of the world. He was poking fun of the most threatening issues of our time.”
Young said that Colbert’s decision to consign his alter ego persona to eternity, “reminded me of what Martin Luther King used to do with us.” A member of MLK’s inner circle and a key player in pivotal events of the civil rights movement, Young recalls of King: “He would assure us that some of us might not make it out of Birmingham or Selma. He said, ‘But I might be able to preach you into heaven.’ He always knew the real threat was to him but he would always palm it off on me or Ralph [David Abernathy] or Hosea [Williams] and he’d preach a funny mock funeral for us. I realized that’s what Colbert was doing all this time. He was satirizing our fears. The world really is scared to death right now. There’s more anxiety and tension in people’s lives now than I’ve seen in my lifetime. You can’t look at the real news. You get depressed. Stephen’s taught us to laugh at the world, our problems and our weaknesses.”
Turns out, the bond between the comic and the civil rights leader goes back a generation. “Right after Dr. King’s death, I went to Charleston and got involved in a hospital workers’ strike,” Young told me. “I went over to try and negotiate a settlement and it was Stephen’s father [James Colbert, a physician and hospital administrator at Medical University of South Carolina] that I ended up meeting and negotiating with. We hit it off immediately. Like his son, he was brilliant. He had worked at New York Presbyterian Hospital, which had a union and he knew all the people in the union. We just had to translate liberal New York union speak for folks in moderate conservative Charleston. It worked.”
Young’s first appearance on The Colbert Report was in 2007 during the Hollywood screenwriter’s strike. The talk show host pleaded with Young to assist in negotiating a deal. Recalled Young: “He asked if we could join forces to settle the strike like his father and I had worked together. I told him, we really couldn’t because the only reason his daddy and I got away with it was because nobody knew what we were doing! If you put it on television, you’re dead in the water!” Young returned to the show after Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election.
Also in the all-star celebrity chorus on last night’s Report finale: former secretary of state Henry Kissinger (who Young was spotted chatting with backstage), historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Katie Couric, R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe, Tom Brokaw, James Franco, Mike Huckabee, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, George Lucas, Cyndi Lauper, Gloria Steinem, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Arianna Hufington, Christiane Amanpour, Patrick Stewart, and Willie Nelson—with singer-songwriter Randy Newman on piano. Colbert—sans his blowhard character—takes over at The Late Show on CBS in 2015.