Today marks the celebration of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a day that makes me think about the ideals for which he and many other fought. In fact, many who preceded Dr. King in the continuing struggle for human rights are Detroiters. It was Detroiters like Arthur Johnson and Charles Diggs who raised money for the mother of Emmett Till in 1954 after he was brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Then-Congressman Charles Diggs went south with many others to protest the death of a young man whose body looked like something out of a horror movie when it was found floating in the Pearl River. Arthur Johnson and many others held a meeting at Bethel AME Church, where Detroiters raised more money than anyone in the country to assist Mamie Till Mobley in her quest for justice for her son.
At the same time, a young man by the name of Coleman Alexander Young, had honed his skills as a labor organizer and a human rights activist with the likes of Quill Pettway, Dave Moore and Paul Robeson. It was Coleman Young, along with many others, who fought some of the great battles that led to the formation of the United Auto Workers. He, along with Milton Henry, Richard Henry (Omari Obadele), fought to desegregate America’s Armed Forces.
Young had lived a lifetime before he became the first Black mayor of the City of Detroit. In fact, one of his finest moments came before the House Un-American Activities Committee, for alleged Communist activities. He challenged one of the southern senators, who continued to refer to him as a “Negra,” to address him, if he chose to use the ethnic term, as a “Negro,” the preferred term for African Americans at that time. His strident demeanor endeared him to many, who were beginning to see the very soul of racism and repression challenged in America. So it was not surprising that a majority of Detroiters, who remembered Coleman Young’s continuing efforts on behalf of the people of Detroit and the State of Michigan, would elect him in a highly charged mayoral race in 1974.
For the next 20 years, Coleman Young would cast a long shadow, not only in Detroit, but throughout the nation, as a leader in the fight for urban redevelopment, jobs and justice.
Not everything that Coleman did was without fault, but nothing that he did was without a desire to improve the human condition…including the creation of what one Detroit DJ referred to as “Coleman’s Train”: the People Mover, which only now is realizing his vision that it be extended outside the downtown area with the planned three-mile train up the Woodward Corridor. Many of those who will attend this week’s Auto Show will ride in comfort on that People Mover.
But unfortunately, they won’t be able to get even a glimpse of the man who made it possible, and who breathed new energy into a city that was dying. Because his famed picture located on the northwest wall of Cobo Hall near the Arena, with Coleman brandishing a cane and standing proudly in his three-piece suit, has mysteriously been taken down.
Ironically, it was Coleman Young who fought in many instances to keep convention traffic flow going at Cobo Hall, and retain it as a major convention site in the 1970s and 80s.
I ask the new Cobo Hall Regional Authority: Where is Coleman? Can he look out over the new expanse? Can the Auto Show patrons point to the portrait and say, “That’s one of the people who helped sustain this facility so we could enjoy it today”? Can Bill Bonds come and look at a portrait of his old nemesis? Can L. Brooks Patterson look at it, fondly remembering who cursed the best? Or can children remember a man who loved, breathed and fought every ounce of his life for the City that he loved until he had no more breath to give?
Surely Coleman has not disappeared because there may be some who wish to vilify him and destroy his legacy and image…they wouldn’t do that, would they?
Wherever he is, whether he is just being dusted to take once again his rightful spot at Cobo Hall…we want him back.