Coleman Young, one of the early big-city black leaders who defied convention and defended his troubled city through 20 tempestuous years as mayor of Detroit, died Saturday.
Officials at Sinai Hospital in Detroit attributed the cause of death to respiratory failure. Young, who was 79, had been in intensive care since July 24, and in a coma since suffering a heart attack on Nov. 12.
Young had chosen not to seek re-election in 1993 after holding the office for an unprecedented five consecutive terms. He served during a period of white flight to the suburbs, industrial decline, high crime and downtown decay, but he never stopped promoting Detroit.
He was a hero to many blacks, an anathema to many whites. But he spent much of his career building biracial coalitions within organized labor and inside the national Democratic Party.
When Young was first elected in 1973, he took over a city that was still racially riven from the bloody race riots of 1967 and economically devastated by the loss of thousands of auto industry jobs. Detroit was the nation’s eighth-largest city, but fear stalked its streets.
Young’s remarks at a prayer breakfast before he took office were typical of his style:
“I issue a warning now to all dope pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers: It’s time to leave Detroit. And I don’t give a damn if they are black or white or if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges. Hit the road!”
Coleman Alexander Young was no stranger to hard times. He was born May 24, 1918, in racially segregated Tuscaloosa, Ala., and his family moved when he was 5 to a tough, ethnically mixed neighborhood on the east side of Detroit called Black Bottom.
During World War II, he was a bombardier-navigator with the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black unit of the Army Air Corps. After the war, he resumed his union activities in Detroit, but was cast out of his job as organizational secretary of the Wayne County chapter of the old Congress of Industrial Organizations during a power struggle with Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers.
Young founded his own union, the National Negro Labor Council, and its activities led him to be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. He refused to answer questions from the committee chairman at the height of their communist witch-hunt, and disbanded his organization rather than turn its files over to President Dwight Eisenhower’s attorney general, Herbert Brownell, who had termed the group “subversive.”
In an interview with The Boston Globe in 1996, Young said, “I consider myself a radical, not a liberal.”
Following his election as mayor, Young worked to lure commercial development back to Detroit. He prevailed upon Henry Ford 2d to complete the Renaissance Center, a striking high-rise complex along the Detroit River overlooking Ontario, and he lobbied tirelessly for federal funds from Republican and Democratic administrations.
Although he was immensely popular in a city that became predominantly black, Young was a political renegade. He supported President Jimmy Carter during his 1980 confrontation with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the darling of most of Michigan’s black elected officials. And twice he spurned the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson by supporting Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 during their drives for the Democratic nomination. In 1983, he led the Detroit delegation in a walkout when Jackson came to Detroit to address a Democratic National Committee meeting. In a conversation with reporters outside the hall, Young described Jackson in unprintable language. He later told Jackson that his “so-called Rainbow Coalition was a joke, that it was a varied shade of black.”
Young was proud of the integration of the Detroit police force following the destructive riots and resentful that thousands of whites abandoned the city for the suburbs. He constantly extolled Detroit’s strides in the face of economic adversity, and vowed that progress would continue even if whites had turned their backs on the city.
Young enjoyed nightlife, and he was a voluble figure - famous for his salty tongue - throughout his reign in Detroit.
As he prepared to retire, Young said, “I certainly had an interesting time, and I will always look back with a warm feeling to the experience … There will be no regrets.”
Young was married and divorced twice. He leaves a son Coleman, 15.