Why Does L. Brooks Patterson Still Have A Coleman Young Problem?

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Can someone remind L. Brooks Patterson that Coleman Young died in 1997?

Patterson, the Oakland County executive, appeared on television this week and once again criticized Young as the person who ruined Detroit.

True, he was asked about Young by Charlie LeDuff, the Fox 2 reporter. LeDuff was doing a legitimate retrospective on the city’s first black mayor on the historic day the emergency financial manager took over mayoral duties in Detroit.

But Patterson could have given any answer to LeDuff’s questions. Instead, he repeated tired old canards that belie the notion that Patterson, a Republican, has become more moderate as his county has become more diverse and Democratic.

 “I think he took the city down because he was hell bent on… getting even for what he considered or perceived to be a lifetime of discrimination and insults and so forth,” Patterson said.

Patterson seems to be saying that Young deliberately let Detroit fall apart because of his experiences with racism – “perceived” racism, that is, because in Patterson’s world the burden of proof for racism is very high.

That charge is loony. It easily tops the other insults Patterson has leveled against  Young over the years. He has accused Young of being a racist. He has expressed his disgust with Detroit. He once said Detroiters living under Young were like “Indians on the reservation – those who can will leave Detroit. Those who can’t will get blankets and food from the government man in the city.”

Patterson couldn’t even find anything good to say about Young the day after Young died. “He was singly responsible for the demise of Detroit,” Patterson was quoted as saying.

During Patterson’s discussion with LeDuff, Young’s inaugural speech came up, naturally, and Patterson recalled how many people “took great offense” when Young told criminals in 1974: “It’s time to leave Detroit; hit 8 Mile Road.”

Patterson neglects to say – or doesn’t know – that Young closed the speech with that warning; much of the rest of the address was devoted to something Patterson rarely discusses -- the idea of unity: between blacks and whites, city and suburbs and even rich and poor.

Actually, many people at the time took the line “hit 8 Mile Road” as Young meant it – as a figure of speech, like “hit the road,” which is another command Young used in addressing Detroit’s criminals that day. But the atmosphere in 1974 was venomous toward an African American  – especially an uppity one with a radical unionist background – taking over Detroit. A lot of people couldn’t handle the idea of a black man in the Manoogian Mansion.

It was not unlike the atmosphere that accompanied the first black man in the White House, another historical development that left critics questioning Barack Obama’s birthplace and calling him a socialist.

Two days after Young’s speech the Detroit News fanned the flames with a story headlined, “Young’s tough-on-crime remark angers suburbs.”

It was absurd to think a sophisticated politician like Young –  who had been a respected leader in the state legislature – would announce to the world his desire to have Detroit’s criminals invade Oakland and Macomb counties – even if that was something he really wanted. But the idea picked up traction and has never gone away.

Despite its provocative headline, the News’ article that stirred the controversy mostly carried comments from suburban officials who said they understood the point Young was making. “Coleman Young is too smart to start off his term in office with a deliberate fight with the suburbs,” Oak Park Mayor David Shepherd told the News.

Young never stopped advocating integration

Patterson has long been one of southeast Michigan’s most influential leaders. He has spent more than 40 years in public life, and he essentially occupies the symbolic post of mayor of suburbia.

Imagine if Patterson, like William Milliken, Sander Levin, Mark Hackel and other politicians, had consistently expressed a willingness to work with Detroit and exhibited at least a neutrality toward Young and the city’s other leaders. His leadership could have made a difference in how metro Detroit operates today.

To put it mildly, Patterson has not been a conciliator when it comes to Detroit. He has been a saboteur. He has never stopped taking shots at the city and its residents, and he continues to obsess about Young.

Born and raised in Detroit, Patterson has sat like a pasha amid the riches of Oakland County and played the self-pitying victim of supposed black racism and of Detroit’s decades-long decline. He reduces the complex origins of what happendend to Detroit to the work of one person who took office two decades after people and jobs began leaving the city and seven years after the 1967 riot.

Young was not a racist. Virtually half white himself, he had many white friends, a longtime white girlfriend and, as mayor, he befriended some of Detroit’s top white business leaders, all the way up to Henry Ford II. Young frequently denounced racism and spent his life advocating for black rights. But he never stopped talking about the need for integration and for blacks and whites to work together. He was often welcomed in the suburbs, and his message was greeted with enthusiastic applause.

Did Young use race as a political weapon? Yes. He can be criticized for that and for many other things, like any public official. He stayed in office far too long. Should he have destroyed a neighborhood for the Poletown auto plant? That’s a legitimate question that’s open for debate. But to suggest his demons led him to sabotage Detroit seems outlandish even for someone with Patterson’s wretched record.

After Patterson’s near-death experience last summer in the horrific auto accident, one might think he would re-examine his anger toward Detroit and his kooky ideas. Calling Young a racist and the man who destroyed Detroit is like saying Patterson, 74, is a leader who has done much to bring metro Detroiters together. Both concepts are an insult to anyone’s intelligence.

Maybe there’s still hope. Even George Wallace reconsidered his race-baiting beliefs as he grew  older.

Coleman Young's inaugural speech was just 528 words. Here it is in its entirety:

Thank you very much Justice Swainson, Judge Keith. If the unity of that duet forebodes anything, I think it is proof that we can bring this city together, that we will bring this city together and commence the awesome task of rebuilding a new and greater Detroit.

I want to thank Council President Levin and Mayor Gribbs for the kind words, for the pledges of support that they have offered my new administration.  I will need all of their help and more.  I am gratified we have a new Common Council which I feel shares as deeply as I personally feel the necessity for moving forward.

The first problem that we must face as citizens of this great city, the first fact that we must look squarely in the eye, is that this city has too long been polarized.  (applause)  We can no longer afford the luxury of hatred and racial division.  What is good for the black people of this city is good for the white people of this city.  What is good for the rich people in this city is good for the poor people in this city.  What is good for those who live in the suburbs is good for those of us who live in the central city.

It is clear that we have a commonality of interests.  The suburbs cannot live without the city.  The white population of this city cannot live while its black people suffer discrimination and poverty.  And so I dedicate myself with the help of Common Council, and more basically with your help toward beginning now to attack the economic deterioration of our city, to move forward the significant first steps that have been made, such as the Renaissance Center, to deal with the problem of rebuilding our city economically.  I recognize the economic problem as a basic one.  But there is also a problem of crime, which is not unrelated to poverty and unemployment.  And so I say we must attack both of these problems vigorously and at the same time.

The Police Department alone cannot rid the city of crime.  The police must have the respect and cooperation of our citizens.  But they must earn that respect by extending to our citizens cooperation and respect.  We must build a new people-oriented police department.  And then you and they can help us to drive the criminals from our streets.  (applause)  I issue open warnings now to all dope pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers.  (applause) It’s time to leave Detroit.  Hit Eight Mile Road.  (extended applause)  And I don’t give a damn if they’re black or white, if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges.  Hit the road.  (applause

With your help we shall move forward to a new and greater Detroit. We must first believe in ourselves.  We must first do for ourselves.  Yes, we will demand our share of revenue from Washington and from Lansing, but the job begins here and now with us.

Ladies and gentlemen, the time for rhetoric is past.  The time for working is here.  The time for moving ahead is upon us.  Let’s move forward together. 







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