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Coleman Young, Revisited

It's been a dozen years since the death of Detroit's first black mayor, Coleman A. Young. So why does he remain such a provocative, and perhaps misunderstood, figure?

First, a backgrounder: He was born in rural Alabama, in 1918. His family was part of the first mass exodus of Southern blacks to settle in Detroit in the 1920s. The region was, at the time, on the cusp of an unprecedented economic and cultural boom driven largely by the automotive industry. During World War II, he served in the Army and with the Tuskeegee Airmen. Then, he became a leading United Auto Workers activist, and in 1964 was elected to Michigan's legislature. Nine years later, he was elected Detroit's mayor -- part of the first wave of blacks to manage major American cities. TIME chronicled Young's 1974 inauguration this way:

Last week Detroiters put aside traditional enmities—poor v. rich, labor v. management, black v. white—for three days of inaugural celebration. The theme was reconciliation. U.S. District Court Judge Damon Keith, who is black, and State Supreme Court Justice John Swainson, who is white, administered the oath of office to Young in unison.

At a sellout luncheon for 3,500 in Cobo Hall the next day, Young received fervent promises of support from Henry Ford II and United Automobile Workers President Leonard Woodcock. The festivities culminated in an inaugural ball Friday night in the flower-festooned hall, where more than 8,000 people danced the night away.

To Young, 55, the son of a tailor raised in Detroit's Black Bottom ghetto, the celebration seemed "more like a coronation than an inauguration." It capped a lifetime of fighting for black rights, first as a union organizer at the Ford Motor Co. in the late 1930s, later as a leader of the leftist National Negro Labor Council in the '50s and as a politician in the '60s. A state senator since 1964, he fought for passage of an open-housing law and against a ban on busing children to integrate schools. In both cases, whites from the Detroit area were among his leading opponents. But no one knows better than Young that Detroit is governable only with the cooperation of the city's white power bro kers in industry and labor. Thus he declared: "We can no longer afford the luxury of bigotry and hatred. What is good for the black people of this city is good for the white people of this city."

A single line of Young's inaugural address would come to define much of his tenure: “I issue this warning to all those pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers: It's time to leave Detroit; hit Eight Mile Road!” Many here still interpret it as the statement that drove whites, and much of this region's wealth, out of Detroit.

To better understand Young, consider his relationship with Bill Milliken, a Republican who served as governor for much of Young's tenure. They were, in many ways, an odd couple: Milliken is from Traverse City, Mich., in the state's northwestern corner, a rural region that often views Detroit with the same derision that, say, Peoria views Chicago. Young was an outspoken, unapologetic urban Democrat. Nevertheless, the men developed a bond on Young's trips to Michigan's capital, Lansing. “I felt very strongly, right from the beginning, that if Detroit did not do well, and did not succeed, it would have an enormous bearing on the whole state of Michigan,” Milliken told me recently. The former governor recalls making the politically risky case for using state funds to salvage Detroit's public libraries, and the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Young served five mayoral terms. The consensus seems to be that may have been two terms too many. He provided many opportunities, especially for professional blacks. But in many ways, Young left Detroit a shell. His dream of a turnaround – led by major projects like the 73-story Renaissance Center overlooking the Detroit River, and a downtown monorail known as the People Mover – never truly materialized. He died on Nov. 30, 1997. Young's successor, Dennis Archer Sr., remembered Young this way in the Detroit Free Press: “The people of this city have lost a great warrior…. He is really one of the greatest mayors for urban America.” In sharp contrast, L. Brooks Patterson, who remains chief executive of Oakland County, Mich., a Detroit suburb, told the newspaper this about his longtime adversary: “He was singly responsible for the demise of Detroit…I can see he was a significant political force, but I don't think he marshaled his energies in a constructive way. I think he was destructive.”

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