Coleman A. Young
Coleman A. Young was one of the most important African-American political pioneers in US history. He was one of the first Black mayors of a major U.S. city. Young's life-story features a series of many such "firsts," each of which created opportunities for others. The story of Young's rise to political prominence is one of deep struggle and perseverance.
1918 - 1960
Pre-Politics: Birth to Activism
Coleman A. Young was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1918. He was the oldest of five children born to William Coleman Young, who worked as a barber, and Ida Reese Jones Young, a teacher.
The family left for Detroit by train in 1923. They settled in Black Bottom, an east-side area Detroit. Blacks coming from the South seeking work in the auto industry were segregated into this crowded, but vibrant, neighborhood.
Young was one of the top students in the Catholic school system, but his scholarship to a Catholic high school was rescinded when a priest learned that the light-skinned youngster was black.
Young attended Eastern High School instead and graduated second in his class. Young was not awarded academic scholarships to any of the universities in Michigan. (One of the reasons Mayor Young founded CAYF was to give others opportunities denied to him.)
After High School, Young worked for the Ford Motor Company, but agitated management with his union organizing activities and found himself blacklisted from working in the auto industry. The FBI also opened a case-file on him. Young became deeply involved in the labor movement, and became the first black official in the CIO. His slogan was "Black and white unite to fight." Young believed that the struggle for workers' rights, and the struggle for black civil rights, were essentially connected.
Young was drafted into WWII and was a lieutenant with the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. Young was arrested with 100 other Black officers after trying to integrate an Officer's Club. The officers were later released.
After the war, Young's organizing work was monitored by the federal government who, in the 1950s, were in the throes of an anti-Communist witch-hunt that sought to ensnare anyone working in the labor or civil rights movements.
In 1952 Young was ordered to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He became the first witness to confront the committee, calling it "un-American." Young's testimony was radiocast in Detroit and he became a local hero.
In the 1950s, Coleman Young struggled to earn a living. He was blacklisted by both private industry and the FBI for his union activities, so he worked as a dry cleaner, wall washer, taxi driver and held other unsteady jobs instead. When his wife, Marion, was pregnant and had a complication, they could not afford the medical care. The child was lost and the marriage would later collapse.
1960s - 1997
Political Career: The Begining
Young entered election politics in the 1960's. At the '61 Michigan Constitutional Convention, he co-wrote the civil rights section of the new state constitution. In '64 he was elected as a State Senator and rose to Democratic floor leader two years later. His colleagues regarded him as both a fiery and astute politician who understood the art of coalition building. In '68, Young became the first black member of the Democratic National Committee.
Coleman Young was elected Mayor of Detroit in 1973. In his campaign he vowed to fully integrate the police force, and work to end the police brutality against black citizens that was endemic in the city. Police brutality sparked the 1967 riot that accelerated the white flight that made Black people a majority in the city.
Detroit was in dire times when Young assumed office. The loss of population, capital and jobs, combined with the decline of the domestic auto industry and the oil embargo, exacted a heavy toll on the city.
Young set out to create new partnerships with corporate leaders, like Henry Ford, II, to try to rebuild the economic base of the city. As a result of the Mayor's efforts, Ford built the Renaissance Center on the riverfront, and both GM and Chrysler built new plants in Detroit.
Among Mayor Young's many accomplishments are:
- Mayor Young was elected five times.
- Young integrated the police force and raised its professionalism to nationally acclaimed levels.
- Young balanced the city's budget despite a declining tax base and federal and state cutbacks.
- Young provided unprecedented opportunity in city government to blacks and women and increased the awarding of minority contracts an astounding seven-thousand fold, spurring an African-American entrepreneurialism that continues to transform the city.
"You can't look forward and backward at the same time."
- Coleman A. Young