by Mark David

A longtime civil rights and social activist, Coleman Alexander Young won election as Detroit's first black mayor in 1973 and served an unprecedented five terms.

The oldest of five children of William Coleman and Ida Reese Young, Coleman Young was born May 24, 1918 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The family moved to Detroit in 1923. Coleman Young had a thirst for knowledge and excelled in school, graduating with honors from Detroit Eastern High School. Denied college scholarships because of his race, Young briefly attended technical school before going to work as an electrician's apprentice in the auto industry and later as a postal worker. He got fired from those and other jobs for trying to organize labor unions. From 1942-46, he served in the US Army and the Army Air Corps, becoming the first black bombardier. Young was part of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first all-black aviation unit.

After leaving the Army, Young became director of organization for the Wayne County Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He drew the attention of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 while serving as executive secretary of the National Negro Labor Council. His defiant testimony made him a hero to many Americans as he challenged the committee's role in spying on and oppressing ordinary citizens.

Young served in the Michigan State Senate from 1964 until his election as mayor. His first mayoral campaign was a tight contest with white police brutality against black citizens as a main issue. Young reformed the police department and made it a model for neighborhood crime prevention programs. He subsequently won reelection by wide margins and became one the nation's leading Democratic politicians. During 20 years in office, he was responsible for numerous downtown, riverfront, and neighborhood projects: the completion of the Renaissance Center, new auto plants, a system of neighborhood recreation centers, Museum of African-American History, Victoria Park Subdivision, and much more. He received the prestigious Spingard Medal in 1981 for distinguished achievement.

Becoming a father late in life, Young soon came to enjoy parenthood. Shortly before retiring in 1993, he wrote an autobiography, Hard Stuff. He later joined the faculty of Wayne State University.

Coleman Alexander Young died November 29, 1997 after a long illness. He left to cherish his memory a son, Coleman Young, Jr.; two sisters, Bernice Grier and Juanita Clark; a host of neices, nephews, and cousins; and a citizenry grateful for his years of service.

Coleman Young was certainly a great man (I had no idea he was one of the Tuskegee Airmen!), and deserves to go down in history as the first Black1 mayor of a major US city, which will forever be a tremendous accomplishment. Just one of his many other accomplishments was the complete desegregation of the Detroit Police Department, to the point where in 1993 the departments affirmative action program was deemed no longer necessary.

But no summary of his life would be complete without mentioning the decline of Detroit. He presided over the later stages of the decline of the Arsenal of Democracy, not to mention the home of Motown and the Detroit Tigers baseball team, into an under-populated, over-taxed also-ran of a city.

Unlike other Black mayors of his era, such as Atlanta's Maynard Jackson, Coleman Young nurtured an instinctive suspicion of anyone from out of town who dared to open a business in Detroit. In spite of billions of dollars in federal and state funds for urban renewal, entire city blocks that were left to burn in the riots of 1967 are still, some 35 years later, nothing but rubble. Meanwhile vibrant neighborhoods such as Hamtramck (pronounced ham-TRAM-ick), populated by aging refugees of Europe's wars and the Holocaust, are razed to build the infamous Poletown factory for General Motors.

Of course, the fall of a city, like the fall of Rome, cannot be attributed solely to any one factor or person; many of the things that hurt Detroit are certainly not his fault. In 1974 when Mayor Young took office, the seven years since the riots of 1967 had already been mostly squandered, the Motor City was already the Murder City, and racial discrimination was still rampant in Detroit and its suburbs. Subsequent years of FBI wiretaps on the mayor that never actually led to any criminal charges, are enough to make anyone a bit paranoid.

Detroit was hardly the only city with these problems. But it was the only major US city that proved almost totally unable to deal with them. Mayor Young was the man in charge, who, in spite of a strong base of popular support that ensured him almost certain re-election and an unprecedented two decades in office, couldn't prevent Detroit from remaining the poster child for urban flight.

For example, Detroit is one of the few US cities to have its own separate income tax. Other income tax cities, like New York, responded to the tax cut fever that swept the nation under President Reagan with modest city income tax cuts of their own. As the economists predicted, New York's actual tax revenues increased under these lower rates. But in 1982 the mayor had a 50% increase in the city income tax! Not surprisingly, while the surrounding suburbs prospered, proving that the region was economically viable, Detroit tax revenues stayed generally flat or declined, and urban flight continued. Yet in 1985 the mayor pushed through a salary increase that made him and his city council the highest paid in the nation, according to the Detroit News and Free Press. By 1987, Detroit had an official unemployment rate of 20.4 percent. By 1993, Mayor Young's last year in office, it was estimated that only half of the city's adult population was still part of the labor force, and of those remaining in the labor force, another 13.5%2 were unemployed. That meant that in 1993, only about a third of the city (342,193 persons2 of a population of about 1,000,000) was working... officially, that is. One can only guess what kinds of black market and grey market employment kept the city from complete collapse.

Another example of squandered opportunity for reform was the 1990 census. Preliminary returns indicated Detroit would probably fall below the 1,000,000 person mark, which was of little economic importance (Detroit's population had been declining for decades) but a huge a psychological blow to the city. At a cost of millions, Mayor Young recruited volunteers, gave city workers time off, and hired other workers to conduct an intensive, house to house manhunt that found 121,350 people the census takers had missed, thus keeping Detroit just barely over the 1 million mark. Of course, the census undercounts poor people and minorities everywhere, not just in declining rust belt cities like Detroit, so this expensive window dressing did little to convince people and businesses that Detroit was somehow less worse off than it appeared. The 1990 census could have been the wakeup call for the city to embrace the prosperity that would sweep the rest of nation for the rest of the decade. Instead, the city and its mayor remained conflicted.

Mayor Young retired in 1994 and passed away in 1997, and was rightly mourned for the many positive contributions he had made. During the 2000 census the city repeated its extraordinary effort, but failed to turn up enough uncounted citizens, and Detroit officially dropped below the 1,000,000 mark. Writes author Tamar Jacoby, "Coleman Young had achieved his dream -- Black Power in one city -- but... it had turned to dross around him."3


My own personal recollections.
The Detroit News,
The Detroit Free Press,
History of Atlanta,
New York City Tax Cuts,


1. I use the term "Black" instead of the current term, African-American, simply because this write-up is about a period in history in which Black was the proper term, based on Mayor Young's speeches, the newspapers and television, and my own personal recollections.
2. 1993 Employment Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics,
3. Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration, Free Press, 1988.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.