Obituary: Coleman Young

Coleman Alexander Young, civil rights campaigner and politician: born Tuscaloosa, Alabama 24 May 1918; Mayor of Detroit 1973-93; died Detroit 29 November 1997.

In the rich and colourful firmament of big city United States mayors, Coleman Young occupies a niche of his own. Charismatic, crusading and autocratic, for better and worse he dominated the politics of Detroit during 20 terrible years for his country's flagship industrial city. But his life was a cameo of the struggle this century of black America for emancipation and self-respect.

He was born in Alabama but when he was only five his family joined in the great secular black migration northward, leaving the terrors of the Ku Klux Klan for the hope and opportunity offered by the motor industry's heroic age. But racial discrimination shaped him almost from the outset; first as a brilliant student denied the chance of university, then as a worker on the Ford assembly lines taunted by white supervisors, finally as an airman in the Second World War, arrested for demanding to be served in a segregated officers' club. And, until the end of his days, the slighted young radical would be a fighter for black rights, especially at the workplace.

In 1949 he founded the National Negro Labor Council, whose achievements included forcing a measure of integration upon Sears, Roebuck, then the largest US retailers. For his pains, he found himself before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and chose to disband the Council rather than surrender a list of members to the government. "In those days," he recalled later, "If you were trying to do anything for blacks, you were considered a Communist."

Predictably, hard times followed. Young was blacklisted, and was obliged to take a string of menial jobs. But by 1964 his reputation as a labour and civil rights campaigner helped win him a seat in the Michigan state senate. His political ascent had begun, and in November 1973 he was elected Mayor of Detroit, among the first blacks to run a major US city.

It was the toughest political assignment in America. The Detroit of legend, of booming motor industry, boundless jobs and the glitz of Tamla Motown, had been buried under an avalanche of race riots, energy crisis, recession and virtual municipal bankruptcy. America's workshop had become a global case study of inner city collapse. Affluent whites fled to the suburbs. Vast swathes of Detroit became an industrial Pompeii. Only in its murder rate did it any longer lead the country.

Probably not even a saint could have rescued Motown at that nadir of its history, and Young fell several notches short of beatitude. But his start was promising enough. Having won election on a platform of cleaning up racism in the police force, widely blamed during the 1967 riots which took 43 lives, he moved swiftly to appoint more blacks. With Henry Ford and Leonard Woodcock, head of the Union of Autoworkers, he formed a coalition to rescue Detroit, and issued his famous call to arms against crime: "I warn all dope pushers, all rip-off artists, all muggers . . . It's time to leave Detroit . . . And I don't give a damn if they're black or white, or if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges. Hit the road. As of this minute we're going to turn this city round."

But the road to urban ruin is paved with good intentions. The recession deepened, the federal government refused to help and Detroit was trapped in the vicious self-perpetuating cycle of rising unemployment, dwindling tax revenues, reduced services, and further middle-class flight that has plagued cities across America, most famously of late Washington DC. And as Detroit declined, Young's belligerence grew. Gradually he gave up on business, and the whites entrenched in the suburbs beyond Eight Mile Road. All his life Young loved sports, and to the fugitives he quoted from Detroit's most famous sporting son: "Like Joe Louis said, you can run, baby, but you can't hide."

Four times he was re- elected, in 1977, 1981, 1985, and 1989, and each success tightened his grip on Detroit's political machine. When he wanted Young could be charming and conciliatory. But with the years he grew more confrontational. He was the Lord of Detroit, and he made sure visitors knew it. His style became lazier, his language more profane. By the end he would sometimes receive guests like an African potentate, clad in a silk dressing-gown, smoking a cigar. His own summary of his career was lapidary: "Just let's say I've had some peaks and valleys, baby."

Briefly Young contemplated a sixth term. But illness dictated his retirement in 1993, and would plague him for the rest of his life. As his own health faded however, that of the city he had ruled began to improve. His successor Dennis Archer, a moderate black Democrat on close terms with President Clinton, is painstakingly reknitting the city with its severed suburbs. The baseball Tigers and the football Lions are moving to new downtown sports stadia, and, gingerly, restaurants, shops and corporations, led by GM itself, are returning to the city's heart. The trend reflects a resurgent and more diversified local economy, a feeling of guilt about what has been allowed to happen - but also of relief that the flamboyant, combative but ultimately corrosive Coleman Young is no longer in City Hall.

- Rupert Cornwell

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own