Former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young dies at 79
November 29, 1997
Web posted at: 4:16 p.m. EST (2116 GMT)
DETROIT (CNN) -- Former five-term Mayor Coleman Young --
Detroit's first black mayor -- died at a hospital Saturday,
after suffering a massive coronary earlier this month.
The 79-year-old Young had been hospitalized since July for
complications from long-term emphysema. By mid-August, he
had contracted pneumonia and had suffered a heart attack.
He suffered cardiac arrest on November 12, the day he hoped
to leave the hospital.
Coleman Alexander Young was born May 24, 1918, in Tuscaloosa,
Alabama. When he was 5, his family moved to Detroit,
making their home in the ethnically and racially mixed east
side neighborhood of Black Bottom. There, his father
established a dry cleaning and tailoring shop and took a job
as a night watchman for the local post office.
The Youngs were Catholics, but a Catholic high school refused
young Coleman's scholarship application. Several years
later, Young's race would keep him from getting financial aid
at the University of Michigan and other colleges, despite a
solid academic record. Young chose to take practical
business courses, and later was accepted as an apprentice
electrician at the Ford Motor Co.
He completed the training program and got a "100" on the
final exam, but he didn't get the only job opening. That
went to a white man who made a lower score. Young took a job
on the assembly line and became and underground union
organizer. He was fired within months for hitting a fellow
worker with a steel bar. The "company goon" had called him
racial slurs and attacked him, Young said.
Young was drafted at the beginning of World War II, and
served as a bombardier-navigator with the Tuskeegee Airmen.
Toward the end of the war, Young and about 100 other
African-American men were arrested for demanding service at a
segregated officers' club in Indiana. Young managed to get
word to the black press. Within days he was released, and
the U.S. Army began the process of integrating the club.
After the war, Young returned to Detroit, and to his union
organizing activities. But the head of the United Auto
Workers did not like the commotion created by Young and other
black dissidents. Young lost his job as a union organizer
for the CIO, and took his first political job, working for
the Progressive Party's 1948 Presidential candidate, Henry A.
By 1952, Young's work for the black community had brought him
to the attention of the House Un-American Activities
Committee, which was investigating the Communist party in the
United States. Branded a subversive, he was called to
testify, but he refused to answer the committee's questions.
After a decade of odd jobs, the 1960s would bring Young
political success. In 1964 he won a seat in the Michigan
State Senate, where he remained for a decade. Over the years
he would rise to become the Democratic floor leader, and in
1968, he became the first black chosen to represent Michigan
on the Democratic National Committee.
'Just say I've had some peaks and valleys'
In September 1973, Young finished second in a field of nine
candidates vying to become Detroit's chief executive. Young
and the top-vote-getter faced off in November. Union support
helped Young defeat his opponent, a career policeman who had
served three years as Detroit's police commissioner. Young
won the election by slightly more than 7,000 votes, capturing
92 percent of the black vote. His opponent, John F. Nichols,
won slightly more than 91 percent of the white vote.
As mayor, Young made good on his promises to create racial
balance within the city's government and its police
department. He also successfully lobbied for tax incentives
to encourage businesses to remain in a city known for its
racial unrest. The business community helped Young
revitalize the city's waterfront. Detroit's $500 million
Renaissance Center was the nation's first privately financed
urban development project.
Young's reputation as a fiery politician was underscored in
the mid-70s. During the recession years he lobbied the White
House for financial support for Detroit, New York, and other
struggling cities. The administration of President Gerald
Ford refused to cooperate. During the presidential election
of 1976, Young chose to back the Michigan politician's
opponent. Young's support helped Jimmy Carter win the
Michigan primary over the incumbent president.
Young won an unprecedented five terms as Detroit's mayor
before he chose not to run again in 1992 due to his poor
health. Through the years, his critics chided him for
allegedly lazy work habits, and frequent trips to Jamaica.
Twice divorced, Young's only child was fathered to a
long-term companion who later sued him for child support.
When asked to sum up his life, Young has frequently told
reporters: "Just say I've had some peaks and valleys, baby."
Detroit Bureau Chief Ed Garsten, The Associated Press and
Reuters contributed to this report.