1989: Young stands atop the Riverfront Apartments. (Free Press photo by Tony Spina)
Coleman A. Young: Social and Political Powerbroker
Andrea S. Harp
April 17, 2001
Coleman A. Young: Social and Political Powerbroker
Most journalistic approaches to African-American politicians tend to be one dimensional portrayals of either one’s personality or political ideology rather than the roots from which the person sprang, thus leaving the reader with a "what you see is what you get" impression. This never rang more true for any black politician as it did for Coleman A. Young, the first black mayor of the city of Detroit. What the public was usually shown of Mayor Young were the negative facets of his personality rather than the political skills that allowed him to become an icon in Detroit’s political history as well as a hero to a majority of its black citizenry. According to Wilbur Rich, author of
Coleman A. Young and Detroit Politics, "Young has been more widely reported for his faults, or those of his subordinates, than for his accomplishments (277)." Rich goes on to comment that "the media can be counted on to dig up incriminating negatives-peccadilloes, divorces, scandals and conflicts of interest-if there are any. But none of these incriminations truly sharpens the picture of a black man, in particular, one who has been drawn to politics (277)." My goal is to reflect on the essence of Mayor Young as he moved from a social activist to a political powerbroker while becoming the longest serving mayor in the city’s history. I wish to affirm that the press was wrong, "what we saw, is NOT all that we got" from his tenure as mayor.
Coleman Alexander Young was born May 24, 1918 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to William and Ida Young. The eldest of five, he migrated to Detroit, MI in 1923, with his parents and four younger siblings to escape the racial injustices and the Klan in the south. A series of local and national political events influenced Coleman’s father to relocate his family northward and remove them from the racial and political suppression of blacks in Alabama. According to Wilbur Rich, "the political world of Coleman Young’s early childhood was one of racial violence and social upheaval (42)." Many southern blacks migrated north only to find that the northern Klan brethren were active and burning crosses on lawns. In 1923 the Klan burned a cross on the lawn of Detroit’s City Hall and racial tensions escalated. The Young family arrived in a city engulfed in racial disharmony. William Young settled his family on Detroit’s lower east side in an ethnically and racially mixed neighborhood known as Black Bottom. The elder Young opened a dry cleaning shop and worked a regular job as a night watchman. His Veteran’s pension, job, and small business enabled him to enjoy a certain amount of independence and a social status not afforded many blacks who were trapped in lowly jobs and auto plants. William Young was a Veteran of World War I and a Republican who switched allegiance to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic party after the Depression. He was known as an avid reader and a militant who hated white people until he met a man who treated him as a "peer." The white man happened to be a Catholic and as a result, the Young family converted to Catholicism. Coleman’s mother, a schoolteacher, was often credited with keeping the stability of the Young family. Coleman acquired his interest in politics and a belief in equality for the races from his father. From his mother he learned the value of public goodwill and concern for those less fortunate (Rich 57).
Coleman began his education in the Detroit Public Schools but was later enrolled in St. Mary’s parochial school. As one of few blacks in either school, Coleman learned to compete with whites early in his educational tenure. He was considered bright and precocious and often encountered negative receptions from his white teachers. Coleman was a good student in elementary and junior high but despite his scholarly standing, he was refused scholarships at University of Detroit High School, Catholic Central, and LaSalle High School. " Coleman described one incident in which a friar tore up his application in front of him (Rich 48)." He returned to the Detroit School system and graduated from Eastern High School with honors. Coleman was offered a scholarship to the University of Michigan but had to decline when the Eastern High Alumni Association, in contrast to policies followed with the poor white students, declined to assist him with costs other than tuition. In addition to the racial disparity
witnessed and experienced by Coleman during his school years, he also had several deeply personal confrontations with racism. One of which occurred when as a Boy Scout he was dismissed from an excursion to Belle Isle because he was black. These experiences reinforced the racial messages he received from his parents and made him more alert to the political and social standings of blacks. He credits these confrontations with racism as "his history in becoming a radical (Rich 49)." The impact of racism molded him at an early age into a keen awareness that one had to fight for racial equality. The events and attitudes that Coleman experienced while growing up in Detroit played a pivotal role in shaping his views on race and politics. In America
political messages are segmented according to race and class. Blacks and whites often hear the same messages but often arrive at different interpretations and conclusions about issues. According to Rich, these contrasts can be traced to differences in socialization patterns. A white man growing up in Detroit during the same time period
as Coleman may have an entirely different view of political events (Rich 41).
1935: Young graduated from Eastern High School in Detroit. (Yearbook photo)
"Racism is something like high blood pressure -- the person who has it doesn't know he has it until he drops over with a goddamned stroke. There are no symptoms of racism. The victim of racism is in a much better position to tell you whether or not you're a racist than you are."
Content ) 1997 Detroit Free Press. All rights reserved.
During his early years, Coleman was introduced to the world of politics through his father who kept up with national and city political events. While the family was not actively involved in politics, Young often recalled that his father held many informal talk sessions in the family living room with friends or behind the clothes racks in the cleaners with fellow post office workers (Rich 41). This exposure was supplemented by weekly visits to the local barbershop that served as the hub for exchange of political ideas in the black community. He was also familiar with the other norms of the black community and recalls that he knew three aspects of black life: " I knew the working-class part. I knew the slicker, the gambler. There was also a middle-class part that I became alienated from." Despite his attempts to distance himself from being thought ‘middle class’, his basic upbringing was considered middle class in many ways. The Youngs are said to have been outsiders in the community because they were converted Catholics in a Protestant neighborhood and they were not a part of the majority auto industry workers. During the Depression Coleman was shielded from the despair of many families because his father had a pension, a job, and an income from his cleaning business. He was not however, shielded from the horror stories of racial violence and police brutality that increased during that time. Many of the acts of violence against blacks haunted Coleman throughout his life.
Young’s teen years took place during the era of Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 30’s.
It was also the time that blacks began to demonstrate a limited political power through the ministers of larger black churches in the city. Henry Ford used the black church as a screening device for black employees. He also financed and supported blacks in the Republican Party. This type of politics was called "clientage politics" in which the ministers acted as brokers for the black community. By the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932, Republican influence among blacks was on the wane and Democrats were winning over the black community. It was also the first time blacks were able to get jobs in the national administration through the government jobs created by Roosevelt’s programs. Coleman learned that government could be a positive force as well as an employer. Upon graduation from high school, Coleman entered an electrician’s apprentice school at Ford Motor Company-only to find the same racism that he had experienced in high school. He completed the program first in his class but was passed over for the only electrician’s position in favor of a white foreman’s son. This experience heightened his awareness to racism and made him make a conscious decision "not to get mad but get smart---to understand power (Rich 57)." He was able to direct his anger, not at the whites around him but at the employment and economic policy makers who contributed to racial conflict. Very insightful on his part! Recognizing the true enemy enabled him to avoid violent confrontations with his white coworkers. Coleman chose to watch and learn from whites and to decipher the unscrupulous from the supportive. He was later hired in on the assembly line at Ford’s and became involved in underground union activities. In 1940, Coleman became executive secretary of the Michigan Division of the National Negro Conference. He worked closely with the United Auto Workers of America (Ford) organizing committee. As a result of his activities, he had several run-ins with the company over policies and was subsequently fired after an altercation with a company security employee. Coleman was later hired at the Post Office but continued to organize autoworkers before joining the Army in 1942 where he was commissioned second lieutenant and served as a navigator in the prestigious Tuskegee Airmen unit. While in the service, Coleman demonstrated against the exclusion of blacks from segregated officer’s clubs and was arrested along with 100 other airmen, among them the late Thurgood Marshall. Young spent three days in jail for his part in the demonstration. A short time later, the clubs were opened to black officers. It was only through a secret strategy used by Young through a courier that the story was leaked to the black press and drew attention to the plight of the arrested black airmen. Though he had already established himself as a militant in the labor movement, Coleman Young had arrived as a social and civil rights activist.
1945: As a lieutenant with the Tuskegee Airmen, Young was arrested with 100 other black officers after trying to integrate the officers club at Freeman Field in Indiana. The officers were later released. (Photo courtesy of Wardell Polk)
On the use of terrorism by oppressed people:
"I guess almost any tactic is legitimate when you've got somebody's foot on your neck."
Content) 1997 Detroit Free Press. All rights reserved.
After the war, Young returned to Detroit and again became a union activist for the United Auto Workers. In 1946, he became an organizer for the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ United Public Workers. The following year, he was elected Director of Organization and installed as the first black member. During the war, the ranks of the Democratic Party swelled as more blacks bought into the new social and political realignment of the party. Detroit’s black community saw this as an opportunity for empowerment. Detroit’s black population flourished after the war because a number of black veterans left the south for jobs in the automobile plants. As the Democratic Party grew, so did the influence of the labor movement, especially the UAW. The Wayne County Democratic organization joined forces with the unions and combined their money, organizers, and communication resources to strengthen and liberalize the local weak Democratic Party structure. A Political Action Committee was formed that was in charge of selecting candidates. The union/party alliance became critical in the development of black politics. A new group of black leaders set the stage for challenging the black clergy dominated politics of the thirties (Rich 55.) Most of the black labor leaders performed racial functions for the unions in the black community opposed to administrative functions in the leadership structure. Their roles were to monitor and direct the political activities of black union members and their community. The money and other resources formerly provided by Henry Ford through the black clergy to organize workers was now provided by Walter Reuther and other labor leaders. In 1948, Coleman lost his position of director of the CIO when Reuther won control of the county organization and removed left-wing opponents. Young’s support for the Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace in the presidential election went against the union’s backing of Harry Truman. Wallace was regarded as an agent of the Communist Party by the union and by 1951, after Coleman had founded the National Negro Labor Council, Young and his associates had drawn the attention of the house Un-American Activities Committee. When brought before the Committee, who conducted hearings requiring that defendants name people associated with the party, Young denied being a Communist and refused to name anyone. Though he was never formally charged with anti-government activities, his Negro Labor Council was put on the Attorney General’s subversive list. His council disbanded in 1956 but the stigma of alleged communist activity remained with him and was used against him later in his career (Gale Group 2).
Insisting on rights for all
'I am fighting against un-American activities such as lynchings . . .'
In Detroit, a new system of black politics was under way through manipulating the clergy leaders with large church donations and other patronages. It was not long before the new black labor leaders gained dominance as the voice of black politics (Rich 55). Detroit’s politics were distinguished from other northern cities because it had the strong black labor coalition to garner support in its communities. In 1948, Truman’s platform for the presidential election included a civil rights plank that was adopted by the National Democratic Party. The tide began to change for black voters, as black leaders were able to mobilize voters for the local Democratic Party.
As blacks in Detroit gained political clout, the middle class was dubbed the "black bourgeoisie." A club was formed in 1949 that catered to black businessmen and professionals. Soon the club became a major social organization for blacks. Politicians began to take notice and were often invited to become members. The Cotillion Club became a political base for blacks seeking social status and political futures. The club was responsible for garnering support for the election of Charles Diggs, Jr. to the state senate and William Patrick’s election to the Common Council in 1957. More aggressive black labor leaders, who like their counterparts of the twenties and thirties had white support, soon upstaged the influence of this elite group. As Coleman developed his leadership skills, he distanced himself from the trappings of the "black bourgeoisie" because he was never prepared to subordinate his views in order to be acceptable to whites. His lack of a college education also did not qualify him as a model of the ‘Negro’ politician invented by middle class blacks during this era. Though he was not the Cotillion Club type, he felt the need to prove himself to its members (Rich 60). By his own account, Coleman Young’s tenure in the labor movement shaped his political career (Rich 56).
During the latter part of the 40’s, Coleman began his training in elected politics as a campaign manager for the Rev. Charles Hill, Pastor of Hartford Baptist Church and founder of the National Negro Congress, who was running for City Council. While both of Hill’s bids in 1945 and 1948 were unsuccessful, Coleman learned valuable lessons in the processes of electioneering. Coleman himself ran and lost a campaign in 1948 for a state senate seat as a Progressive Party Candidate. Though he remained active in the Progressive Party, he refused an offer to run a second time for state senate in the early 50’s. Between 1955 and 1960, Coleman faded from active politics, was married and divorced twice and went through a period of intense personal difficulties. During this time, he kept up with political issues and maintained friendships with progressive whites in the labor movement (Rich 67).
In the process of selecting potential leaders, the political system of leadership appoints and elects those men and women, both black and white, who it believes will promote the interests and agendas of the group. Without the endorsement of the inner circle of power, a candidate would likely remain an outsider with little input on policy development and implementation. Coleman Young was said to have been both an insider and an outsider during the development of his political life. Upon his
return to active politics in 1959, he switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party and made an unsuccessful bid for city council. His attempt to gain a council seat with no money and little backing was considered a maverick move but it helped establish a power base on Detroit’s East side. Coleman Young’s big break in the political world came in 1961 when he was elected as delegate for the Michigan Constitutional Convention, without the support of the labor movement who still considered him "a dangerous red" as a former member of the Progressive Party (Rich 72). The convention, convened to rewrite Michigan’s state constitution, afforded Coleman the opportunity to work and interact with ‘power wielders’ from all over the state. As a member of the Taxation and Finance Committee, Young earned a reputation for being a tactician and an advocate for the poor. He is quoted as saying that "...dissecting the Constitution is the best education in government. I convinced a lot of people that I didn’t have horns. I had great ability (Rich 72)." After the convention was over, Coleman sought employment with the Credit Union League. His association with alleged communist activities from the Progressive Party continued to follow him. Foes within the labor movement attempted to block his employment by calling the FBI who unsuccessfully pressured the League against hiring him. Members of the League were aware of his controversial background but took the chance on him after he placed second highest on the aptitude exam. He proved to be a top salesman and was put in charge of the Family Group Program. Young was able to go into areas that had never seen a black man and write policies. It was soon evident that he had a special talent for selling himself as well as insurance. In 1962, he ran for the Michigan House of Representatives and lost by only seven votes. Though the Constitutional Convention had revived his name recognition he was still opposed by the UAW. Two years later, he ran against another black candidate for a state Senate seat and won by a 2-1 margin to become Michigan’s second black state senator.
As a state senator, Young quickly asserted himself as a leader. In 1966, his colleagues unanimously elected him as the Democratic minority floor leader. During his tenure he worked for urban agendas by introducing bills that dealt with urban renewal, welfare benefits, bail bonds, and other issues that directly affected the poor. He was later elected chair of the State Elections Committee. During this time, Young also maintained his career as a labor supporter and became one of the chief sponsors of the Michigan Public Employee Relations Act. Young’s tenure in Lansing also included
sponsorship of the state’s open housing laws, the first Detroit city income tax bill and played a major role in the enactment of the state’s abortion law. In addition, he was actively involved in the enactment of the state consumer protection laws, the decentralization of Detroit Schools, and fair hiring practices in the Detroit Police Department. (Rich 70). In 1968, he became the first black chosen to represent Michigan on the Democratic National Committee, later he was elected as the DNC’s vice chairman (CNN/U.S. News 2). The 10 years spent in Lansing served as an apprenticeship for Young---not only did he demonstrate his leadership abilities, he was also able to show that he could "manage party affairs and stay clear of left-wing politics (Rich 70)."
On the abandonment of Detroit:
"No other city in America, no other city in the Western world, has lost the population at that rate. And what's at the root of that loss? Economics and race. Or should I say, race and economics."
Content) 1997 Detroit Free Press. All rights reserved.
In 1973, Coleman Young declared his candidacy for mayor of the City of Detroit and mounted a vigorous campaign against opponent Sheriff John Nichols. In order to wage a successful campaign, black leaders had to make Young marketable to voters. Coleman, the second black to run for mayor after the 1969 defeat of candidate Richard Austin, brought unique credentials to the race. As a former labor organizer, campaign manager, and elected official, he personally knew most of the key political activists, both black and white that would be instrumental in supporting his campaign. Young won the election by a slim margin of 7,000 votes. As the first black mayor, Young inherited a city in economic decline. His first four years included a fiscal crisis in 1975, a near riot, police confrontations over lay-offs and residency rules, and the threat of plant closings by Chrysler. White flight, though not new, escalated into near crisis as the city taxbase eroded. His first term was a time of testing for Young and his staff. The normal problems that come with any change in leadership became greatly exaggerated by the press who spent many hours looking for hints of dissention within the administration. Mayor Young was constantly interviewed by the press in which he tried to make assurances that his administration was not a black takeover of the city. Young was forced to make many unpopular executive decisions that set the stage for the unending criticism of his leadership of the city. Rich observed "the white suburban—controlled media miss the mark when they attack black power wielders as if they were merely ethnic politicians. Many reporters underestimate the emotional content of black politics, or in the case of Detroit, the symbolic nature of the Young administration (28)."
Uncertain times proved to work as an opportunity for Young to prove his governing ability. Coleman was able to turn things around and soon became known as the most visible black mayor in America. His early successes were the integration of the police department and the promotion of black officers into administrative positions, the creation of a business and labor coalition for the preservation of the industries remaining in the city, and a tax adjustment plan to attract new businesses to the area (Gale Group 2). He brought the city from the brink of bankruptcy and revitalized the city’s riverfront. During Young’s twenty years in office, he was credited with many accomplishments including completion of the RenCen complex, the building of Joe Louis Arena, the PeopleMover, and Poletown. These victories did not come easily but Young was a tough defender who was willing to take risks. He was a proponent of Affirmative Action and economic redevelopment.
1976: Young jokes with Jimmy Carter.
"Swearing is an art form. You can express yourself much more directly, much more exactly, much more succinctly, with properly used curse words."
Content) 1997 Detroit Free Press. All rights reserved.
While he was credited with bringing the city’s black citizenry into a position of political power and integrating the municipal work force, his critics saw him as a man who was crude, sometimes profane, and rarely apologetic for his actions (CNN/U.S. News 2). Young was often outspoken, brusque and opinionated, and prone to anger when challenged by the press. Considered one of America’s most controversial mayors he was known as a fiery and testy leader. He became a power broker in national politics and was credited with helping Democratic presidential candidates in their campaigns. His ties with Washington helped Detroit obtain vast amounts of federal aid, which helped turn the city around financially. The media continued in its bias towards Young and his administration and after the presidential election of Ronald Reagan, it was predicted by Kirk Cheyfitz, an influential local journalist, that the political clout of Coleman Young would decline with the defeat of Jimmy Carter and the ascendancy of Reagan. Cheyfitz wrote an essay entitled "The Survivor" in which he observed that in "one day, Young was transformed from an insider in national affairs to an outsider." As the title of the essay suggested, however, Coleman Young was a "survivor." He survived the Reagan years because he was smart enough not to alienate local Republicans who could help the city (Rich 115). Once again, the political savvy of Coleman Young was evident.
Young’s subsequent terms involved scandals on both the professional and personal level. He survived two major political upheavals involving the department head of the Water Board and the Chief of Police. In the case of the Water Board, also known as the Vista and Magnum scandals, the role of the press and its misunderstanding of black politics was exemplified when a review of the press coverage by an Ohio State University Journalism School Team reached this conclusion:
In a very real sense, the mayor of Detroit and the Detroit
media serve different constituencies. The media seem never
to have recognized that. The reporters talk about Detroit as
a large metropolitan area spreading far from the city center.
Coleman wasn’t elected by those people. In the view of the
Mayor, the media represent an outside set of interests-interests
which should be treated with suspicion. Given the social
geography of the metropolitan area, there is a racist relationship
between the media and the city (Rich 28).
Though there was no evidence of his direct involvement, bribery convictions of city employees and the resulting publicity fueled the press and escalated criticism of the administration. After the Water Board inquiry, Young stated the "major disappointment of that period was not that federal investigators had targeted his administration for special scrutiny, but that, in his view, the press was all to willing to print grand jury leaks from a racially and politically motivated FBI (detNews.com 2)." The subsequent revelation that he had fathered a child out of wedlock with a city employee added to his growing list of critics and almost toppled his last campaign for reelection.
The election and reelections of Coleman Young did not necessarily mean that the voters were in total agreement with either the man or his policies and should not be viewed historically as mandates but rather authorizations to continue the job at hand (Rich 205). Coleman’s twenty-year reign as a hero saw many ups and downs for the man once called the urban saviour of the black community. The myriad of problems facing Detroit were becoming issues for the voters who began to doubt his continued ability to lead the city. The effects of long-term emphysema had caused a decline in his health for a number of years and it became obvious in his public appearances that he was in a state of decline professionally and physically. Coleman announced on June 22, 1993, that he would not seek re-election. His efforts to empower a people long denied a place in the political, economic and social mainstream of America is perhaps his greatest legacy.
For many, the press on both the local and national level has perpetuated the negative image of Coleman Young’s management style. It has been observed in Rich’s
research that there is"mischievousness on the part of reporters when they cover black mayors". Reginald Stewart, a New York Times Reporter, observes: "The Detroit newspapers seem to take a certain delight in quoting the streams of vulgarity, but most of what the mayor utters for the record would not be printed in the New York Times if he was mayor of New York (Rich 28)." The tendency to broadcast negative aspects of the mayor’s style hampers the media’s presentation of otherwise useful examinations and criticisms of city policies (Rich 28). Throughout his tenure as mayor, he ignored his critics in the media and continued with his agenda.
In comparing his style to previous mayors, two others stand out in Detroit’s history. Mayors Hazen Pingree and Frank Murphy are said to have had equal or greater political clout and influence and impact on the office. Pingree and Young dominated city policy agendas as well as the electoral politics of their respective eras (Rich 264). In comparing Young to his predecessor Roman Gribbs, it is noted that Young was able to roll his agendas through, where as the Gribbs administration was often criticized for being slow movers (Rich 108).
With the power bloc reign of Coleman Young at an end, there was a scramble by the Democratic Party for a viable black candidate to replace Young. Former Supreme Court Justice Dennis Archer fit the bill as a power broker who could bridge the gaps between the racial divide of the Young administration. A faction of the black community who had problems with his middle class background did not consider Archer, a former protégé of Young, "black enough" or "tough enough". The style of Dennis Archer has been markedly different in that Archer has been a more conservative power builder who has made many inroads in bringing the city around without alienating its white citizenry. While many consider him a dynamic leader, Archer is not however, seen as a fighter for the common man like Young. Although he was easily re-elected in his second term, opposition from the black community is mounting against his political agenda forcing him, just a few days ago, to announce that he will not seek a third term as mayor.
Many black politicians credit the leadership of Coleman A. Young for their successes. Despite the images that prevailed through most of his tenure as mayor, behind the scenes he had a great impact on the newer generation of black politicians.
Coleman Young broke down many barriers for blacks in the political world. "Young was one of those pioneers who proved to the country and the world that black people have the same ability as anyone else (detnews.com 1)." Coleman Young was successful because he understood the differences between politicking and governing and he was not afraid to tell it like it was.
Looking at the life of Coleman Alexander Young has been an enriching experience. Whether one loved him or hated him, he was a champion for the downtrodden. His fight against racism and the resulting oppression of black Americans lasted his entire life. The times in which he was brought up molded him into what he became. He endured racism, red baiting, criticism and other challenges in his personal and political career but held on to become one of Detroit’s greatest leaders. There were two sides to Coleman A. Young-the controversial leader and the man with a vision for equality. Young’s triumphs and failures, endearing qualities and erratic behavior have been widely reported by the media. Often overlooked in those descriptions, however, were his passion for learning, his belief in formal education as a pathway to success, and his support of higher education (Inside Wayne State 1). What we saw through the eyes of the press is certainly not all that we got from the rich legacy of a man who dedicated his life to the issues of common people, namely Black Americans.
CNN.comU.S. News. Detroit’s ‘great warrior’ Coleman Young, dies.
detNEWS.com. "Coleman Young and History". 5 Dec. 1997.
detNews.com. "Detroit Remembers the Mayor: "His fire fades amid
scandals, years of ill health." 9 Dec. 1997.
Gale Group Free Resources. "Coleman A. Young, Politician, Civil Rights Activist."
Heinlein, Gary and Weeks, George, The Detroit News. detNEWS.com. "Breaking
Barriers: Ex-mayor built future for Archer, others.
Inside Wayne State. Coleman Young shared legacy of learning, research, opportunity
with WSU. <http://www.media.wayne.edu/iws.back.issues/iws
Rich, Wilbur. Coleman A. Young and Detroit Politics. Michigan. Wayne State Un
Press. Oct. 1989.