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Coleman Young was famous for the blunt statements he sometimes used publicly because they were often peppered with profanity. He said, “Swearing is an art form. You can express yourself much more exactly, much more succinctly, with properly used curse words.” His words were often quoted in magazines and newspapers exactly and succinctly the way he expressed them—pulling no punches and no holes barred. He was also known as the social and political powerbroker who served five terms—the longest ever—as the mayor of Detroit, Michigan, at the end of the Civil Rights Era when Black people were beginning to rise in the political world.
Young had been a lieutenant in the United States Air Force serving as a bombardier and navigator in the 477th Medium-Bomber Group, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Those airmen belonged to a group of 162 African-Americans officers who were arrested for resisting segregation at a military base in Indiana in 1945. In the annals of military history, it became known as the Freeman Field Mutiny.
Born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on May 24, 1918, to William and Ida Young, he was the eldest of five children. The family moved to Detroit in 1923 to escape the harsh realities of racial injustices that were prevalent in the South. However, they soon realized that racial hostility and social upheaval, though less overt, were just as prevalent in the North.
Young began his education in the Detroit Public School system and then transferred to St. Mary’s Catholic School. Being one of the few Blacks enrolled in the school, he encountered his first set of racial experiences but was reportedly able to deal with them based on the messages he had received from his parents. Those early racial confrontations alerted him to the political and social standings of Blacks. It also prepared him for a future where he would have to fight for racial equality in all of his meaningful endeavors.
Despite excellent academic achievement, Young was denied a scholarship to the University of Detroit High School and eventually returned to the public school system. After graduating from Eastern High School in 1935, he was offered a scholarship to the University of Michigan. Though he was qualified to attend, the high school alumni declined to assist him financially, which had been their custom. Preference was given instead to help poor White students and Young’s family was unable to afford the difference in his tuition.
Immediately, Young went to work for Ford Motor Company, where he became involved in the labor union struggle and the Civil Rights Movement. His social activism grew as he expanded his involvement in organizations considered progressive and some dissident including the Progressive Party, the AFL-CIO and the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC), which Young had founded. These activities made him some powerful enemies and got him “blacklisted” which was problematic as he sought other employment in the U. S. Postal Service.
Memories of his father’s political leanings weighed heavily on Young and he used those as an introduction into the world of politics. The elder Young was an avid reader, who kept up with local (Detroit) and national politics, and was a Republican until the Depression. He switched to the Democrats after the New Deal reforms took hold and turned around the economic condition of the country. (Blacks were still at the bottom of the economic ladder and even though the nation improved, the relative position of Blacks remained constant—at the bottom).
After his military service, Young returned to civilian life in 1946, resuming his union activities, as though life had never stopped—just paused for the military. (He married Marion McClellan in 1947). This time around, he worked for the United Auto Workers and organized for the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ United Public Workers. His activities in the unions were also supported because of the great migration of Blacks who left the South for “northern opportunities” especially in the booming automobile industry. The influx of Blacks seeking “greener pastures” gave Young an ideal constituency for union membership, and as Blacks flourish, so did his power base.
A natural alliance was created between politics and that union, and Young was right in the middle of the alliance. In addition, the Black church was also pivotal and became the third side of the triangular alliance—the union, politics and the church. (Historically, the church had always been the hub of any meaningful activity in the Black community). The Black church monitored both the political and union activities, acting as the check-and-balance of the triangular association.
In 1948, Young lost one of his positions as director of the AFL-CIO and ended up supporting the Progressive Party’s candidate for President, who was regarded as an agent for the Communist Party. Young later regarded his choice as a major mistake since it also drew unwanted attention to him by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Gradually, his union support was eroding and his NNLC was disbanded. He was called to testify before the HUAC and was forthright in his testimony insisting that he was fighting for the rights for all people. He testified, “I am fighting against un-American activities such as lynching ......”
As part of a national trend, most Blacks shifted their allegiance to the Democratic Party, and in Detroit, they went a step further harnessing their newfound political clout into a “Black bourgeoisie” middle-class status. Young distanced himself from them because as he developed his leadership skills, he was never prepared to subordinate his beliefs in order to be accepted by Whites. This, coupled with the fact that Young did not have a college education, made him a radical in the eyes of the Detroit Black middle-class. He definitely was not “yacht club” material but his leadership activities in the union compensated for any perceived “ivy-league” shortcomings and shaped his budding political career.
Young’s slowly moved into elected politics as a campaign manager for a pastor who was running for city council. In 1948, he ran for state senate as a Progressive party candidate and lost. (This was part of the difficulties he encountered for his support of the Progressive party). He got divorced in 1954 and was remarried the following year to Nadine Baxter.
After his second marriage, Young faded from active politics but stayed in touch through his union involvement.
Four years later, he formally switched to the Democratic Party and in 1960, he was elected as a delegate to help draft a new Michigan constitution. In 1962, Young ran for the Michigan House of Representatives and lost by seven votes but received tremendous name recognition. When, in 1964, he ran again for the state senate, he won by a two-to-one margin. He quickly asserted his leadership skills as a state legislator and was elected minority floor leader. During his tenure in the senate in Lansing (Michigan’s capital), Young was instrumental in drafting laws that spoke to the needs, not only of his Detroit area constituency, but also to the general welfare of the working class and the “voiceless” including housing laws; the first Detroit income tax bill; state consumer protection laws; the Public Employees Relations Act and measures that impacted the decentralization of Detroit Schools and fair hiring practices in the Detroit Police Department.
He rose to become the vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee and after spending almost 10 years as a state legislator, Young declared his candidacy for the mayor of Detroit. He mounted a vigorous campaign and brought sterling credentials to the race as a former labor organizer, campaign manager and elected official. He knew the political landscape and that served him well: he glided to victory by a margin of about 7,000 votes to become the first Black mayor of Detroit in 1973. He was inaugurated in January 1974. (At the same time, Thomas Bradley and Maynard Jackson were being sworn in as first Black mayors of Los Angeles and Atlanta, respectively).
When Young took over, the city was in economic turmoil and it dragged on throughout his first four years. In addition to the economic crisis, he inherited labor/union problems over police lay-offs and residency rules; the threat of automobile plant closings and the possibility of civil unrest. There was a mass exodus of Whites moving to the suburbs that eroded the city’s tax base. This prompted his remark: “No other city in America, no other city in the Western world has lost the population at that rate. And what’s at the root of that loss? Economics and race, or should I say, race and economics.”
His first term became a major test of Young mettle as a leader of a new era and a standard by which the future of African-Americans leadership was destined to be evaluated. The municipal problems remain constant though Young’s popularity soared within the city limits and he eventually was elected to four subsequent terms—a total of 20 years. Young was able to turn the economy around becoming one of the nation’s most visible and blunt-speaking mayors. He integrated the police department and was able to promote Black officers, but did not to fully contain its notorious and brutal past.
At each election, Young was able to showcase the positive work of his administration with such accomplishments including the building of the Joe Louis Arena and the RenCen complex. (The RenCen was/is the Renaissance Center complex consisting of 7 interconnected skyscrapers on the city’s international riverfront; it housed the world headquarters of General Motors Corp.). Young was also an avid proponent of Affirmative Action that fueled many of his economic projects which in turn benefited the city coffers. When he was accused of reversed discrimination, he reportedly stated that discrimination needed to be reversed.
He was closely aligned with Washington during the Carter administration and that greatly eased the flow of federal aid to Detroit. However, his skills as a politician, earned him special recognition when Carter was defeated and he was still able to maintain his influence, though to a lesser degree. His fourth and fifth terms were beset by a series of scandals and political upheavals. However, there was never any direct involvement on Young’s part in any of the scandals and he blamed the press for exacerbated the situation.
By the end of his fifth term, it was obviously that his health was diminishing. This propelled him not to seek another term and he exited gracefully to private life. According to the media, Young was more widely reported for failings rather than for his accomplishments. Many Black politicians have credited his leadership and trail-blazing efforts for their successes. He broke down many barriers and removed many obstacles for Blacks especially in the political world. One of his profound quotes is: “Racism is like high blood pressure—the person who has it doesn’t know he has it until he drops over with a goddamned stroke. There are no symptoms of racism. The victim of racism is in a much better position to tell you whether or not you’re a racist than you are.”
Coleman Young died from emphysema in 1997. “Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.