Ambassador Andrew Young has led an empowered life. As a former aide of Martin Luther King, Jr, he was on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, and after his death in 1968, continued to fight for equal rights in his roles as a former Congressman, two-term mayor of Atlanta, UN Ambassador, and now as a leader in the Andrew Young Foundation. The activist is having his painting unveiled in the National Portrait Gallery on April 30, which will be place in the gallery’s exhibit “The Struggle for Justice.” We talked with him about the portrait process, his legacy, and what it means to be a continuing symbol for justice.

Did you sit for this portrait?

Almost. I went to his studio [painter Ross R. Rossin] and I was walking around looking at his work. And the we sat down and talked for awhile and he was taking pictures the whole time but…I don’t think I sat still in one place for more than 15 minutes.

He and I got along very well. He follows you around and gets an impression of who you are and what you’re about.

Are you pleased with the final product?

Oh, yeah. It’s almost too lifelike. It’s scary!

Andrew Young by Ross R. Rossin. Oil on canvas. 2009; National Portraig Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Jack Watson. (Copyright Ross R. Rossin)

Your portrait will be featured among several other civil rights figures. Do you feel that symbols are still important?

Well, those people were more than symbols. The people that are there [in the gallery] really engaged in serious struggle. When I was in 6th grade, and Thurgood Marshall was probably in his early thirties, I saw him…he was arguing the case for the equalization of teachers’ salaries in LA. He had fought the good fight in the court system all over before he got to be a part of the government. That’s much more than symbolic.

What are you thoughts on the future Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial?

Well, I think it’s symbolic of the fact that his spirit lives, and that his body was stopped in Memphis, but it only released his spirit. I was in Memphis a couple of weeks ago, and I realized finally that…he used to say that “Nobody can say when they’re going to die, and nobody can say how they’re going to die. The only thing you have anything to say about is what you die for.” He was determined that almost every day of his life, be focused on something he really believed in and was willing to die for.

What do you want viewers of the portrait to take away?

I want them to see that I’m one of the pictures that represents an era where America really worked at its best to help all its citizens. And I don’t think of that as being me. I think of that as being my parents, my teachers…all of the people that invested in me.

Looking at the [Royal] wedding this morning...they were talking about the Royal heritage. But I knew the songs they were singing. I knew the ritual. I realized that in a way in America everybody’s royalty. I’ve had as good a life as either of them have had. I just understood how my environment and having been to 150 or more countries - I realized I couldn’t have had the kind life I had in anywhere else in the world.