Coleman A. Young, 79, one of the country's most outspoken African American politicians and a former mayor of Detroit who struggled to stem the tide of economic and social problems that made the Motor City a symbol of urban decay, died yesterday at a hospital in Detroit. He had emphysema and heart ailments.
In the course of his career, Mr. Young was a union organizer, an insurance salesman, a member of Michigan's constitutional convention and a state senator. In 1968, he became the first black member of the Democratic National Committee, and on Jan. 2, 1974, he was the first black to be inaugurated as mayor of Detroit, having won a narrow victory over a white former police commissioner. He held the office for five terms until 1993, when he declined to run again.
A man of seeming contradiction, Mr. Young could be as effective in the halls of corporate power as he was on the meanest street corner. In his public pronouncements, he attributed his city's problems to the white suburbs, Republican stinginess and the media. His conversation often included the "n" and "m-f" words. Critics chided him for the extravagance of his personal style, but he paid little attention. When the last Cadillac convertibles were rolling off the assembly lines, he bought one for himself. He took his vacations in Jamaica.
But Mr. Young also worked with Henry Ford II in the 1970s to build the Renaissance Center, a major project on the banks of the Detroit River, and with Lee Iacocca in the 1980s to bail out Chrysler Corp. An early supporter of President Jimmy Carter, he helped draft the report of the U.S. Conference of Mayors that the Carter administration adopted as its policy toward the cities. In 1982-83, he was president of the conference.
Mr. Young claimed credit for building or facilitating 15,000 units of public housing and numerous other projects, both private and public, including an acclaimed museum of African art.
The bedrock of his policy was the idea that in order to survive, the city needed more jobs and businesses, not just public works. To that end, he persuaded the Michigan government to give the city tax breaks to attract investments. He played a key role in providing land and incentives for new Chrysler and General Motors plants. To keep the city from going into default, he imposed on Detroit residents the highest taxes in the state.
Mr. Young's most important achievement may have been to give blacks a sense of pride and empowerment.
"He took office and franchised a segment of the population that had been disenfranchised," said Bob Berg, Young's press secretary for the last 11 years he held office. "He made advances along those lines that will never will be changed."
But vast areas of the city remained blighted. Crime was a problem. The school system was described as a disaster. City services lagged. Business owners complained that it was difficult to attract talent from other parts of the country. The population declined from 1.8 million in the 1960s to just under 1 million in the 1990s, with blacks making up more than three-quarters of those who remained.
Mr. Young made the figures a centerpiece of his 1988 reelection campaign, as if the very scope of the problems was a cause for civic pride.
"We're living in a city of a million people, half the population of what it was 40 years ago," he declared. "It's the greatest loss I know of any city in the history of the world."
With the passage of years, Mrs. Young's critics complained that he had lost touch with the people and that his main interest was in maintaining his formidable political machine. In the 1980s, his administration was hit by several scandals, although he himself was never charged.
A broader view was that Detroit's problems were not of his making and were probably beyond the reach of a municipal government, or perhaps any government, to solve. The exodus of whites and middle-class blacks began gaining momentum after riots in the summer of 1967 that left 43 dead, all but 10 of them black. Jobs were lost because of world economic conditions, not local ones.
Coleman Alexander Young was born May 24, 1918, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. His parents were Coleman and Ida Reese Young. When he was 5, the family moved to Detroit.
Young, whose family had converted to Catholicism, was refused admission to a Catholic high school because he was black. He graduated from Detroit's Eastern High School with honors, but he never made it to college, apparently because of prejudicial scholarship practices.
He went to work for the Ford Motor Co. and became a clandestine union organizer. He was fired after getting into a fight with a white employee and then went to work for the Post Office. After his World War II Army service, he returned to the Post Office and continued his union activities.
Mr. Young soon left to become organizational secretary of the Wayne County chapter of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). By his own account, he was forced out of that job for insisting on equal job opportunities for blacks. In 1948, he worked for Henry A. Wallace, the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party. After the election, Mr. Young founded the National Negro Labor Council.
That was the period of the Red scare associated with Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis), and Mr. Young's activities on the progressive fringes were enough to bring charges that he was a communist sympathizer.
In 1952, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When Rep. John Wood (D-Ga.) questioned him about the Labor Council, he replied, "You would not be in Congress today if it were not for the legal restrictions on voting on the part of my people."
In the later 1950s, Mr. Young worked at a number of odd jobs before beginning to sell insurance. His breakthrough in politics came in 1961, when he was elected as a delegate to the state constitutional convention. While serving in that capacity, he wrote a proposal that two years later led to the establishment of a civil rights commission. He was a member of the Michigan senate from 1964 until he was elected mayor.
Mr. Young was twice married and twice divorced. Survivors include a son, Joel.
In "Hard Stuff," an autobiography published in 1994, Mr. Young offered this assessment of his performance as mayor:
"I think I've done pretty damn well with what I've had to work with. The media is constantly after me to evaluate my performance in terms of whether the city is better off than it was when I became mayor, but that's an absurd and blatantly prejudiced way to look at it. Hell no, I don't think Detroit is better off than it was when I became mayor. The auto industry certainly isn't better off than it was in 1974. The job market certainly isn't better off than it was then. How the hell could Detroit be better off? But I damn sure think it's better off for me becoming mayor." GREGORY PETER CHRISTY Violinist
Gregory Peter Christy, 67, a concert violinist who was a member of the Air Force Symphony and its Strolling Strings, died Nov. 27 at Potomac Hospital after a heart attack.
Mr. Christy, who lived in Woodbridge, played with the Air Force Symphony from the time he enlisted in the military in 1951 until his retirement as chief master sergeant in 1981. In 1974 he was named concert master of the Air Force Symphony. He also served as leader of the Air Force Strolling Strings, which performs at White House and other high-level government functions.
From 1981 until his death, he performed with his group, the Singing Strings, which played at government and political events and private parties.
He was born in Windsor, Ontario, and raised in Detroit. He studied music at the Juilliard School of Music and graduated from the University of Maryland.
He was a member of the First Baptist Church of Woodbridge.
Survivors include his wife of 42 years, June Christy of Woodbridge; two sons, Jeffrey, of Lake Ridge and James, of Germantown; two sisters; and a grandson. JOE EDWARD WEBB Physical Scientist
Joe Edward Webb, 61, a physical scientist who was business development manager in the federal systems unit of Intergraph Corp. in Reston, died of pulmonary fibrosis Nov. 27 at Columbia Reston Hospital. He lived in Herndon.
Much of his career, in both government and private industry, had involved photogrammetry, cartography and digital image mapping.
Mr. Webb was a Missouri native and a Navy veteran. A geology graduate of Southwest Missouri State University, he did graduate work at Ohio State University and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
He worked in the Washington area for the Defense Mapping Agency from the mid-1970s to 1982, then worked in private industry in Florida, before returning here in 1994 and working for Intergraph.
His hobbies included gardening.
His marriage to Carolyn Webb ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, Phyllis A., of Herndon; two children by his first marriage, Jennifer W. Lyons of Cocoa Beach, Fla., and Andrew C. Webb of Satellite Beach, Fla.; two stepchildren, Robert J. DeForge of Bel Air, Md., and Jennifer R. Troisi of Palm Bay, Fla.; two sisters, Patsy A. Snadon and Janelle A. Harper, both of Branson, Mo.; and six grandchildren. CLARA MAE FERGUSON Seamstress
Clara Mae Ferguson, 87, a self-employed seamstress and a church member, died of a stroke Nov. 25 at the Medlantic Manor Nursing Home in Silver Spring. She had lived in Washington for 60 years before moving to the nursing home in 1993.
Mrs. Ferguson, a native of Bluefield, W.Va., came to the Washington area in the 1930s. She was a member of Pilgrim African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington and served with its Pulpit Aid Club and the Celestial Choir.
She was also active in the National Council of Senior Citizens.
Her marriage to John Ferguson ended in divorce.
Survivors include two brothers, William Fuqua of Bluefield and Frank Fuqua of Washington; and an adopted brother, Earl Jefferson of Pulaski, Va. RICHARD G. PERKS Sr. Service Manager
Richard G. Perks Sr., 69, who retired in 1994 as a service manager for ADT Security Systems in Washington, died of lymphoma Nov. 27 at his home in College Park.
Mr. Perks, who was born in Syracuse, N.Y., began a career with ADT Security Systems before serving in the Navy from 1945 to 1949. After his Navy service, he returned to ADT in New York, then in 1963 came to Washington, where the company is based.
Survivors include his wife, Dorothy Perks of College Park; three children, Dora MacRae of College Park, Richard Perks Jr. of Glen Burnie and Dianne Brown of Westminster, Md.; his mother, Gertrude Perks of Colonial Heights, Va.; three brothers; five sisters; eight grandchildren; and a great-grandson. MARGARET BERRY BRADY Washington Native and Bank Clerk
Margaret Berry Brady, 88, a Washington native who was a clerk for Riggs National Bank on Dupont Circle for more than 20 years until her retirement in the late 1970s, died of cardiac arrest Nov. 18 at her son's home in Baltimore.
Mrs. Brady, who lived in Baltimore for the last 15 years, was a sixth-generation Washingtonian. She attended Sidwell Friends School and graduated from old Gunston Hall Academy.
She was a member of Christ the King Catholic Church in Silver Spring.
Her husband, James Edmund Brady Sr., died in 1968. Survivors include two children, James E. Brady Jr. of Baltimore and Margaret Brady Boyd of Flower Mound, Tex.; a sister, Elizabeth Berry Howard of Garrett Park; a granddaughter; and two great-grandchildren. CAPTION: COLEMAN A. YOUNG