Why Coleman Young was not the cause of Detroit's bankruptcy

Jul 23, 2014

Coleman A. Young, 1981
Coleman A. Young, 1981
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Coleman A. Young was Mayor of Detroit from 1974 to 1994. He was Detroit's first black Mayor.

Even though it's been more than 20 years since he was Mayor and over 16 years since he died, there's a common narrative that Young was the cause of Detroit's financial ruin.

But is that really true?

Larry Gabriel from Bridge Magazine and Stephen Henderson from the Detroit Free Press joined Stateside to answer this question.

Henderson said you cannot get a bigger reaction from someone by saying any name other than Coleman Young.

“He is the sort of beginning and end of all political discussion in the city still,” Henderson said. “He is the lightning rod for everything around here.”

Gabriel said that Young didn’t really do anything exceptionally wrong. He was an African American who took political power and held on to it for 20 years.

“Generally he did good things, but he indeed did wield his power,” Gabriel said.

Reporters at the Detroit Free Press dug through piles of documents to analyze the city’s financial history and found that Young knew how to handle the city’s money.

“By any reasonable measure Coleman Young was a fiscal conservative,” Henderson said. “However the popular narrative is the opposite.”

Gabriel said Young was feisty and often combative and that his blunt approach was something that was needed during his time in office.

Henderson added that Young opened the doors for many black politicians in Detroit, and he said Young changed the city for black people.

“A close friend of his always said to me that what people don’t understand when they talk about Coleman Young was that being pro-black was not anti-white,” Henderson said.

In a piece he wrote for the Detroit Free Press, Henderson asked people to dial back the emotions when it comes to Detroit’s problems and try to really understand who Coleman Young was.

“I don’t think we can build a proper framework for leadership of Detroit in the future so long as we are stuck in a narrative that says our past is something that it wasn’t,” Henderson said.

Larry Gabriel wrote a column in Bridge Magazine on Young’s Legacy. You can read it here.

Stephen Henderson is the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press and he just won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.

*Listen to the full interview with Larry Gabriel and Stephen Henderson above. 

-Bre'Anna Tinsley, Michigan Radio Newsroom.