WASHINGTON -- It was the spring of 1976 when Jimmy Carter, well on his way to the Democratic presidential nomination, was quoted as speaking sympathetically about Americans who wanted to preserve the "ethnic purity" of their neighborhoods.
Political alarms went off. Blacks were a key element of Mr. Carter's coalition and the question was whether they would see the remark as evidence of some latent -- and previously hidden -- racism in the candidate from Georgia.
One reporter got a quick answer, however, when he called the flamboyant black mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young.
"Ethnic purity," Young replied in his gravelly voice, "is as American as mom's apple pie." Of course, he said, everyone -- including blacks -- wanted to preserve the distinguishing characteristics of their neighborhoods.
As much as any single factor, Young's quick reaffirmation of his faith in Mr. Carter put out the fire of controversy before it destroyed the candidate. After all, as everyone in the political community knew full well, Coleman Young was no pushover when it came to detecting and attacking racism.
Young, who died in a Detroit hospital at 79 the other day, often played a role in national politics in his 20 years as mayor of Detroit that ended in 1993. He was too colorful and forceful a personality and too unpredictable and effective as a political leader to be ignored by the white establishment at either the local or national level.
This was the case, moreover, although Young never succeeded in his plan for "saving" Detroit by revitalizing downtown through the cooperation of business, labor and government. Indeed, during his tenure Detroit's population dropped almost in half as whites fled to the suburbs and the city acquired a reputation as being too dangerous.
Young was characteristically blunt in his own assessment. "I think I've done pretty damn well with what I had to work with," he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, "Hard Stuff."
"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."
Whatever his successes or failures in saving Detroit, Young maintained a strong hold on the affections of black voters there who liked his in-your-face candor and toughness in dealing with anyone he perceived as a threat to the city's future. They also seemed to appreciate his combative attitude toward the news media, whom he often frustrated by larding his conversation with so many obscenities he could not even be paraphrased accurately, let alone quoted.
While Jimmy Carter was in office, Young enjoyed a voice in setting White House policy toward the cities and developed a relationship with Vice President Walter F. Mondale that paid political dividends for Mr. Mondale in his own campaign for the presidency in 1984.
A Jackson foe
In that case, Young was motivated at least in part by the antipathy he always felt toward Jesse Jackson, whom he disparaged as a leader willing to talk a good game but unwilling to do the dirty work involved in, for example, getting more jobs for poor blacks. When Mr. Mondale confronted Mr. Jackson in the Michigan caucuses that year, Young placed his formidable political machine squarely behind the vice president and defeated Mr. Jackson.
Later the same year, at a critical meeting of black leaders and Mr. Mondale in St. Paul, Young was one of the mayors who pressed the group -- including Jesse Jackson -- to get behind the Democratic candidate. When the meeting ended and reporters and television crews arrived to find out what had happened, Young made a great display of pinning a Mondale button on an obviously discomfited Mr. Jackson's lapel.
But Young was also a practical politician. Four years later, faced with the reality of Mr. Jackson's popularity against Michael Dukakis, Young announced his supporters were free to go their own way, thus conceding he no longer could deliver the votes. When a reporter asked if that was his reasoning, he replied with an obscenity and a laugh.
Coleman Young worked no miracles, but he was a memorable politician.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 12/03/97