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Stateside Podcast: The legacy of Coleman Young

Coleman Young answers questions during an interview in 1984.
Patricia Beck / Detroit Free Press
Coleman Young gives a speech.

The National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. is filled with sculptures. Some are marble, others are bronze, but all of them are of prominent Americans. A new statue of prolific Michigander and long-time Detroit mayor, Coleman A. Young, will soon join the ranks. Mayor Young’s statue will be the first statue of a Black man from any state to stand in Statuary Hall. It’s a sign not only of Young’s important legacy, but also of a system that’s largely kept political power out of Black Americans’ hands.

Early life in Detroit

Born in Alabama in 1918, Young’s family was part of The Great Migration, when millions of Black Americans moved north to escape racial violence and pursue better opportunities. At age five, Young and his family settled in Detroit’s Black Bottom – a Black neighborhood on the lower east side of the city.

Detroit city historian Jamon Jordan knows Coleman Young’s story well.

“Of course, because of segregation – the northern version of Jim Crow – African Americans really go to particular schools in or near African American neighborhoods, predominantly Black Bottom,” said Jordan. “Coleman Young will go to those schools […].Sidney Miller becomes the Black high school and Eastern becomes overwhelmingly white. Coleman Young will be one of the few [Black] students who will remain at Eastern High School, where he’d graduate from […] in 1935.”

Grassroots organizing in labor and in the military

After graduating, Young took a job at Ford’s River Rouge plant. It’s here where his roots in organizing begin: he was fired from Ford after attempting to organize a union, and the same happened when he went to work for the U.S. Post Office. In 1942, he’s drafted into the military and became a Tuskegee Airman in the Army’s Air Force, where his organizing efforts continued.

“[H]e will organize the Freeman Field Mutiny in April of 1945 in Indiana,” said Jordan. “The Freeman Field has officers’ clubs that are segregated. So [Young] leads that protest… a group of African American officers would attempt to go into the white officers’ club. Coleman Young would be in that first group, and they would be arrested. After they were arrested, another wave would do it and get arrested. This was a major protest against segregation in the military in the middle of World War II.”

After his military service ended, Young returned to Detroit and became the first Black councilmember of the Congress of Industrial Organizations – essentially a federation of unions – and later he formed the National Negro Labor Council.

“Coleman Young is joining that group of labor leaders who are fusing worker’s rights with civil rights. And so he’ll lead the group in protesting segregation in public places in Detroit, like the hotels, the schools, the restaurants, the bars, and of course, the sports arenas.”

During this time, Young makes a name for himself on the national stage. He famously appears before the McCarthy-era House Committee on Un-American Activities, defying committee members who accuse him of communist sympathies.

“He becomes a hero in the Black community, especially in his neighborhood on the east side of Detroit, where he did much of his organizing.”

Five-term mayor of Detroit

Young became a Michigan state senator in 1964, and he was determined to channel his popularity among Black voters in a bid for mayor. He ran unsuccessfully in 1969, but won in 1973 by a slim margin — there wouldn't be another margin that slim in any of his future mayoral elections.

“[S]enator Young stood out as pointing directly at the Detroit Police Department and their brutality as being part of the reason of the cause of the [1967] uprising, and one of the major reasons for much of the carnage, and death, and injury that happened during those five days of uprising,” said Jordan.

Coleman Young's 1973 campaign ad "I See Violence & Fear"

One of Young’s first moves in office was to disband a post-1967 police program known as STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), a policy that often resulted in fatal encounters with police for Black Detroiters. He also led the effort to integrate the DPD and shift to a community policing model.

“By the time he left office, 50% of Detroit police officers were African American….When he was elected, there were 2,323 complaints of police brutality by citizens…Within a decade, the complaints of police brutality had gone down to 825…825 isn’t perfect…but it was a substantial change.”

Beyond reforming Detroit’s police, Young sought out other changes to improve the lives of Black Detroiters.

“When he was elected in 1973, Black-owned businesses had only received about $25,000 in city contracts. But by the time he left office, Black-owned businesses were receiving $125 million.”

Young didn't leave his organizing roots behind, either. Over the years, he helped other grassroots politicians get elected to city council, city and county clerk offices, school boards, the state legislature, and even U.S. Congress.

Young leaned fiscally conservative as mayor. By offering tax incentives to large development and construction projects and slashing city jobs, Young saved the city from bankruptcy, but leaft other gaps in its wake. He was unable to control widespread arson on “Devil’s Night” every year, and the 1980s saw an unprecedented rise in gang violence.

But for all his points of contention, there’s a reason why Coleman Young is getting a spot in the National Statuary Hall.

“[I] would argue that Coleman Young did save the city. He saved it from bankruptcy…He saved it from rampant police corruption…He saved it from white suburban domination of the city assets…He organized the funding to build what was then the largest museum devoted to African American history in the nation,” said Jordan. “So despite the shortcomings, most African Americans who were living in Detroit when he was mayor consider him a hero. So do I.”

For more on Coleman Young’s life and political legacy in Detroit (and beyond), check out this episode of Stateside.

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Ellie Katz joined the Stateside team as an intern in September 2022.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.