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Former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young dies at 79

Young 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. Wallace.

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.


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