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Detroit's 'great warrior,' Coleman Young, dies

Young November 29, 1997
Web posted at: 9:57 p.m. EST (0257 GMT)

DETROIT (CNN) -- Coleman Young was eulogized Saturday as a larger-than-life figure who passionately fought for his adopted hometown of Detroit during two decades as its first black mayor.

Young, 79, died Saturday afternoon after a lengthy bout of ill health. The cause of death was reported as respiratory failure.

"Coleman never stopped fighting," said his cousin and personal physician, Claud Young. "He loved life, and he was not willing to give in until he had to."

Young had been hospitalized since July for complications from long-term emphysema. By mid-August, he had contracted pneumonia and suffered a heart attack. He was revived after suffering cardiac arrest on November 12 but went into a coma.

"The people of this city have lost a great warrior," said current Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, who succeeded Young after he decided not to seek re-election in 1993.

Republican Michigan Gov. John Engler called the former Democratic mayor "a man of his word who was willing to work with anyone, regardless of party or politics, to help Detroit -- the city he loved and fought for all his life."

Young built strong grassroots support

In 1973, Young, then a Michigan state senator, made history when he was narrowly elected mayor of Detroit, the first African-American to lead what was then the nation's fifth-largest city. In the ensuing years, he built enormous grassroots support that carried him to easy re-election four times.

But while he was credited with bringing the city's black population into a position of political power and integrating the municipal work force, his critics saw a man who was sometimes profane and rarely apologetic, who often alienated the business community and presided over Detroit's precipitous economic decline during the 1970s and 1980s.

His 1989 re-election campaign was rocked when a female city employee accused Young of fathering her son. Genetic tests confirmed that the mayor was indeed the father, and her paternity suit was settled.

In the late 1980s, Young, who often complained of FBI harassment, had his townhouse bugged by federal agents during an investigation into municipal corruption.

Though he was never charged, one of his business partners, who was also a deputy police chief, pleaded guilty to charges related to the theft of $2.6 million in police funds. Young's police chief and friend, William Hart, was convicted and sent to jail in 1992.

Throughout his tenure, Young ignored his critics in the media. He retained the brusque style he demonstrated in his first term, when he went to Washington to meet the Housing and Urban Development secretary.

Greeted by a lower-ranking black official, Young said, "I didn't come to see the house nigger. Get me the man."

Once, after winning re-election, he exhorted his supporters to go home and rest up so they could go to City Hall and "kick some ass together."

Mayor presided over shrinking city

While white flight from Detroit didn't begin with Young, it continued during his administration. Between 1950 and 1990, the city's population dropped by nearly half to slightly more than 1 million. By 1990, more than three-quarters of city residents were black, compared to just 5 percent in the suburbs.

As Young left office in 1994, Detroit had shrunk from the fifth-largest city to the tenth-largest.

But Young was credited with helping Detroit steer clear of bankruptcy in 1981, and he was able to work with the business community to revitalize the city's riverfront with the $500 million Renaissance Center, the nation's first privately-financed urban development project.

Moved to Detroit when he was 5

Coleman Alexander Young was born May 24, 1918, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His family moved to Detroit when he was 5, making their home in the ethnically- and racially-mixed Black Bottom neighborhood.

Drafted at the beginning of World War II, Young served as a bombardier and navigator with the Tuskegee 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 Army began the process of integrating the club.

After the war, Young returned to Detroit, where he became a union organizer. But he lost his job when the head of the United Auto Workers Union took a dislike to the commotion created by Young and other black dissidents. So Young 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.

In 1964, Young won a seat in the Michigan Senate. Over the next decade, 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. He was later selected as the DNC's vice chairman.

Twice divorced, Young generally kept a low profile after his retirement, though he did write his autobiography. His son, Joel Loving, now 14, is his only immediate survivor.

Detroit Bureau Chief Ed Garsten and Reuters contributed to this report.


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