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.