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Obituary: Coleman Young

  • @IndyVoices
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