Coleman Alexander Young
May 24, 1918 – November 29, 1997
Unit: 477th Medium-Bomber Group
Coleman A. Young was a politician, civil rights activist, Tuskegee Airman, and labor leader. He was the first African American to be elected mayor of Detroit. He also became the city’s longest-serving mayor.
Young was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to William Coleman Young, a dry cleaner, and Ida Reese Jones. His family moved in 1923 to Detroit, as part of the Great Migration out of the South to industrial cities that offered more opportunity. There Young graduated from Eastern High School in 1935. He became a member of the United Auto Workers, and worked for Ford Motor Company. Later Young worked for the United States Post Office Department.
During World War II, Young served in the 477th Medium-Bomber Group of the United States Army Air Forces as a second lieutenant, bombardier, and navigator. As a lieutenant in the 477th, Young played a role in the Freeman Field Mutiny in 1945. Some 162 African-American officers were arrested for resisting segregation at a base near Seymour, Indiana
He was discharged afterwards and returned to Detroit where he resumed his work as a union organizer. He became the director of organization for the Wayne County branch of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. However, Walter Reuther—head of the United Auto Workers—fired Young in 1948 for radical behavior. Young then worked full-time for progressive presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace. Young also helped found the National Negro Labor Council in 1951.
Young’s progressive actions led to a confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, when it accused him of being a Communist subversive. During his appearance before HUAC, Young stated, “I consider the activities of this committee to be un-American.” Though his stance earned him attention in some quarters, Young was subsequently blacklisted by employers and labor organizations.
For the rest of the 1950s, Young survived with the few jobs he could find, such as working in insurance sales and driving a cab. Still interested in politics, Young unsuccessfully ran to become a state representative in 1959. He was elected to the Michigan Senate in 1963. In 1968, he became the first African American on the Democratic National Committee. Young would go on to win the position of vice chairman of the DNC.
In 1973, Young won election as the first black mayor of Detroit. He was a popular choice among African-American voters. During his tenure, Young lowered Detroit’s crime rates. He also led construction projects that helped revitalize the city’s economy, such as the $350 million Renaissance Center business and retail complex in downtown Detroit. However, many businesses and residents still left the city while he was mayor, departures that disrupted the economy.
Young remained Detroit’s mayor until health concerns made him decide not to run for re-election in 1993. With five terms in office, he was the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history.