Thirty-four years ago this month, I sat with Mayor Coleman A. Young in his 11th floor office at City Hall for what turned into a four-hour interview.
I was writing a story for The Detroit News on his decades-long battle with federal law enforcement -- particularly the FBI, which had been investigating him since the 1950s, when he was a union official.
I had followed some of Young’s encounters with the FBI, and figured it would make a fascinating piece. Editors agreed.
Younger readers who only know of Young’s time as mayor of Detroit may not know his earlier history with the feds. On Feb. 28, 1952, he testified before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, which held hearings in Detroit (and other cities), looking for Communists and their sympathizers. Young, in keeping with his salty, take-no-shit personality, kicked things off by admonishing a counsel for the committee for his thick Virginia-accented pronunciation of “Negro.”
“That word is ‘Negro,’ not ‘Niggra,’” Young told Frank Tavenner Jr. “As a Negro, I resent the slurring of the name of my race.”
Young’s FBI file, a hefty document of nearly a thousand pages, will soon be part of the Coleman Young Papers at the Detroit Public Library's Burton Historical Collection. Those looking for drama won’t find much; it consists mostly of routine and boring reports of meetings with fellow labor activists and radicals, well before he was elected mayor. The file was requested by the Free Press, and sat in storage at the paper for years.
Recent news of this relocation triggered my memories of Young, the city’s first black mayor.
Weeks of waiting
My interview didn’t happen with a snap of a finger. I put the request in, probably in early October 1984, shortly after I was hired by The News. Then I waited and waited for an answer, occasionally calling his press secretary, Bob Berg, to see if we could make it happen. I got non-answers in reply.
I tried to sidestep the approval process as best I could. I was stationed outside Tiger Stadium during the 1984 World Series, helping report another story, when the mayor pulled up in a limo and emerged with his bodyguards. I moved toward him to shake his hand and identified myself. I hoped to put my face with the name he was hearing.
Then I waited some more.
“He was checking you out,” Bob Berg, who is now in public relations, told me the other day. Young was trying to determine whether I could be trusted; Young, like most politicians, had been burned by reporters before.
Finally he decided I could have the interview if Executive Editor Ben Burns would sit in and listen.
“He knew Ben respected him, and to him, that would guarantee it was going to be a fair piece,” Berg recalled.
Finally, the date was set, a Friday afternoon in January 1985. Burns and I went over to city hall.
Extensive research preparation
I was ready, having researched every aspect of his life over the months of waiting. I read newspaper clippings. I spoke with his friends and to former federal authorities, including Detroit U.S. Attorney Philip Van Dam and former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell. And I perused piles of FBI documents.
One item in the file stated that on April 9, 1954, an FBI agent approached Young at Willow Run Airport and suggested Young, then 34 and an officer in the National Negro Labor Council, become an informant.
Young was offended by the offer. He grabbed the agent and took a swing that just grazed him. The agent later wrote in his report that Young “is a dangerous individual and should be one of the first to be picked up in an emergency and one of the first to be considered for prosecution.”
After being elected mayor in 1973, the FBI would continue to investigate Young, as well as his friends, political appointees and business associates. And while some of them went off to prison, the feds never got anything on him, which says something. It wasn’t for lack of trying.
The interview started, with Burns and Berg sitting in. Young and I got along fine. We connected.
At one point, Young was talking about his childhood and how he faced racial discrimination early in life.
He recounted when he was 13 he was turned away from the Boblo boat while white classmates sailed off on a school outing. He told how he was rejected for admission to a Detroit Catholic high school.
“I never got past the front door,” he explained. “One of the brothers came up to me and he was puzzled. He said, ‘What are you, Japanese?’ I said, ‘No, brother, I’m colored’…and he took my application and tore it up right in my face.”
I was taken aback, thinking a “brother,” a black man, had done that. Sounding quite surprised, I said: “A brother did that to you?”
Young looked at me, burst out laughing and clarified: “A brother. A friar.”
Berg and Burns also started laughing.
I laughed as well and blurted: “Hey I’m Jewish.”
'I resent the reckless charges'
Then we got to the Vista case, an early-’80s investigation into a sludge-hauling firm involved in illegal contracts with the city. The feds alleged that the company tried to look as if it were black-owned when it was not. Six people pleaded guilty or were convicted, on various charges – bribery, conspiracy, racketeering, extortion, mail fraud or misprision of a felony. Those imprisoned included Young’s close friend Darralyn Bowers, who failed to disclose a hidden ownership in the company, and aide Charlie Beckham, who was accused of taking a $16,000 bribe.
During trial in 1983, the U.S. Attorney’s Office tried to make Young an unindicted co-conspirator. The judge denied the motion and basically said, indict him or back off.
Young told me his attorneys advised him not to discuss the case. I told Young that it was his prerogative not to talk, but I assured him I was going to write about it.
He responded: “There was no conspiracy (on my part) or there would have been an indictment. I guarantee you. . . . I resent the reckless charges.”
(At some point, I spoke to the U.S. Attorney Leonard Gilman, who denied the Vista investigation was racially motivated, as Young had suggested. “People believe Young. But that’s sad. Our job is to go after political corruption, both black and white.”)
Closing handshakes at last
After four hours, the interview ended. (Burns had to leave before it was over.) We all shook hands.
“From my perspective it went well,” Berg recalled the other day. “It certainly was not contentious. I think he thought you were listening and you were truly interested in what he had to say.”
On Sunday, Jan. 27, 1985 the front-page story was published. It continued to two full pages inside and was headlined: “Young’s case against federal prosecutors.”
“When the piece ran, he was pleasantly surprised that the Detroit News ran what he thought was a fair piece,” Berg said the other day. “It was the first time either paper had really taken an in-depth look at the mayor and the feds.”
To this day, many white residents of Metro Detroit repeat the casual accusation that Young was corrupt to the core, a man who watched a great city crumble on his watch. To be sure, some of his associates were, but no legal authority ever pinned anything to the mayor.
And many are unaware of how vigorously the feds pursued Young, a man unafraid to admonish a representative of that same government for his lazy pronunciation. He answered a call to become a rat with a clenched fist. But for four hours, he was happy to talk about it with me for the benefit of Detroit News readers. I’ll always remember it.