On this day in 1972: State Sen. Coleman A. Young announces Detroit mayoral bid  

By: - December 15, 2022 3:33 am

Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young in 1977. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

On Dec. 15, 1972, state Sen. Coleman A. Young (D-Detroit) announced that he would run for Motor City mayor. The Democratic National Committee member would later be elected to the post in 1973, becoming the first African American to serve in city history. At the time, Detroit was the nation’s fifth largest city in population.  

As local residents and others remember Young, who died 25 years ago, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said that Young’s tenure has influenced how he governs today with an emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion as well as fiscal responsibility and economic development. 

“He was one of the most brilliant minds I ever saw. As I’ve been doing this job, I understand more and more exactly what he was doing and what he was thinking,” said Duggan, who served a Wayne County deputy county executive during the early 1990s. 

Duggan was first elected Detroit mayor in 2013. 

Sparked by decades of corporate disinvestment, Young in 1981 convinced city residents, Michigan Legislature and then-Gov. William Milliken, a Republican, to increase the city income tax in order to address the city’s budget deficit.

More than a decade later, after a national recession, the city of Detroit faced a $271 million deficit. Young reduced the government workforce and called for a continued 10 percent salary cut for each city employee in his Fiscal Year 1994 budget, his last as mayor. 

“We’re in a whole lot better shape than we were last year … but when you run out of money, whether you’re a federal government, state government, county government, or a family, you tighten your belts and make do with what you have and that’s what we have done,” said Young in 1993, according to a city of Detroit ad published in the Detroit Free Press at the time.   

In 1995, renowned sculptor Artis Lane was commissioned by a group of Detroit residents to create a bust of former Young. Four years later, the City-County Building, Detroit’s city government headquarters, was renamed the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. The bust is housed in the center. 

State Sen. Coleman A. Young (D-Detroit) in 1973. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Young’s life and times

Born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Young moved to the Black Bottom section of Detroit in 1923 to join his father, William Coleman Young. 

After graduating from Eastern High School at age 16 in 1935, Young was active in labor union organizing in the 1940s and joined the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed set of African Americans who served with distinction during World War II in racially segregated armed services. During his service, he and other African Americans led an effort to rebel against an all-white U.S. Army officers’ club. 

In 1948, Young rallied for justice when 15-year-old Black boy, Leon Mosley, was fatally shot in the back by a white Detroit police officer during a running chase. Mosely had reportedly stolen a car.

During the 1950s, like other labor organizers, Young was hauled in to face the Red Scare-mongering House on the Un-American Activities Committee of the U.S. Congress during the Joseph McCarthy era.

Young, a feisty personality with an occasional sharp tongue, refused to share names of people who the committee deemed as Communists. 

“You must have mistaken me for a stool pigeon,” he told the committee in February 1952 during a field hearing in Detroit. He became a local hero because of his activism.  

Young later won seats to the Michigan Constitutional Convention in 1961 and to the state Senate in 1964. After two terms in the Senate, Young won election to the office of Detroit mayor in 1973, where he served until 1994.

During the late 1990s, Young suffered from emphysema, but stayed as active as possible and had accepted a teaching position at Wayne State University.

Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young in 1976 with Democratic Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

City leaders, former appointees speak to Young’s legacy

Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice and Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer said he visited Young several times during his eight years as the city CEO, beginning in 1994. 

He said that diversity in the Detroit Police Department and the Detroit Fire Department are among Young’s most important actions. The number of African Americans, Latinos and women in both agencies rose significantly. Young attracted the first Black police chief, William Hart, in 1976. He appointed the first Black Detroit Fire Department marshal, Donald Robinson, in 1974. The appointment of Robinson by Young helped to pave the way for Archer to appoint Harold Watkins as the Detroit Fire Department’s first Black chief in 1998.

“My job as mayor was made a whole lot easier because of the work that Mayor Coleman Young had accomplished while he was in office,” said Archer.

In addition to Young’s efforts in public service, the Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit NAACP president since 1993, said that the former mayor’s effort to create economic development opportunities for Black residents was also key.

“Coleman was a way-maker. He knocked down doors so that we might come through. And the question for us is: What door have you knocked down? What door have you opened? What have you done that has led to a legacy that somebody else can pick up?” said Anthony.

State Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit) is leading an effort to have a statue of Young housed in Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill. Hollier’s father joined the Detroit Fire Department during Young’s tenure as mayor. If not for Young’s diversity efforts, Hollier said, his father may not have had the opportunity to secure the job.

“If you look out as a state, there is no one who has played a more important role over the last century. There is no one in Michigan’s history — not just Detroit’s history — but on the national stage than Mayor Coleman Young,” said Hollier.

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Llenda Jackson-Leslie served as a city of Detroit publicist in the Young administration. She said Young led a political machine that helped to determine who would run for local elections like Detroit Board of Education, Michigan Legislature and U.S. House seats. Equally important, Jackson-Leslie also pointed out that Young’s influences spanned from NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois to South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela.

In 1990, Young and others hosted Mandela just after his release from prison in South Africa after fighting the country’s racial discriminatory apartheid social system. The Detroit effort raised about $1 million for Mandela’s African National Congress. 

“[Young] was intellectually curious. He was a reader and a student of history. He was remarkable. There aren’t a lot of leaders like that,” said Jackson-Leslie.

On Nov. 29, 1997, Young died after a long illness. He was 79. 

Young’s son, Coleman A. Young II, is a former state House and Senate member who currently serves on the Detroit City Council. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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