May 18, 1919
November 29, 1997
Coleman Alexander Young, a politician, was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He moved to Detroit at the age of five and grew up in an integrated eastside Detroit neighborhood called Black Bottom. After graduating from high school in 1936, he went to work for the Ford Motor Company. At the Ford plant Young became an organizer for the United Auto Workers, fighting in the auto industry's nascent labor movement. The draft interrupted his labor career. During World War II, he was given a commission in the army and joined the Army Air Corps's elite all-black flying unit, the Tuskegee Airmen. After he returned from the service, he rose through the ranks to become the first paid African-American union staff officer in the city. Young, who had previously been the executive secretary of the National Negro Council's Detroit branch, was a founder and executive director of the National Negro Labor Council (NNCL).
In 1951 Young was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to answer charges that the NNCL was a subversive organization. He refused to provide the committee with the membership list of the organization and publicly rebuked committee members for questioning his patriotism. Rather than responding to its questions, he chided the panel for its members' positions on racial issues. The exchange angered top labor leaders, who promptly blackballed him. During the 1950s Young found it difficult to find steady employment and operated a short-lived cleaning business, among other occupations.
The next decade marked a change in Young's fortunes. He found steady work as a salesman, then reentered public life. In 1960 he was elected a delegate to the Michigan Constitutional Convention. In 1962 he lost a race for the state assembly, but in 1964 he was elected to the state senate and became a Democratic Party floor leader. In 1968 he was the first African American elected to the Democratic National Committee.
Young wanted to run for the office of mayor of Detroit in 1969 but was stopped by a state law that prevented sitting state legislators from running for city office. The law was later changed, and in 1973 Young launched an improbable mayoral campaign. He promised to curb police brutality and made disbanding of the police special "decoy squad" his defining campaign issue. Blessed with rhetorical skills and the support of black trade unionists, he finished a strong second in the primaries. In the general election, he received few white votes, but he carried 92 percent of the black vote and narrowly defeated Detroit police chief John Nichols. In January 1974 he took office as Detroit's first black mayor.
Young eased the formerly troubled relations between the city's residents and police, but the search for ways to revitalize the depressed local economy occupied much of the mayor's time. Among the developments and projects associated with Young's administration were the Joe Louis Arena, the General Motors Poletown plant, the Renaissance Center (a hotel, office, and retail complex), and the Detroit People Mover (an elevated rail system around the central business district).
Although his aggressive style and personality aroused opposition, Young's popularity among his core constituency of black working-class voters, plus the support of the Detroit business community, won him an unprecedented five terms as mayor. In 1993, however, he announced that he would not seek a sixth term. Following his retirement, Young wrote an autobiography, Hard Stuff (1995).
Rich, Wilbur C. Coleman Young and Detroit Politics: From Social Activist to Power Broker. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989.
Rich, Wilbur C. "Detroit: From Motor City to Service Hub." In Big City Politics in Transition, edited by H. V. Savitch and John Clayton Thomas, pp. 64–85. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1991.
wilbur c. rich (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005