The Man Behind The Man: Coleman A. Young’s Former Press Secretary Talks Legacy

When Coleman Young took office as the first black mayor of Detroit, he made this statement during his inaugural address:

I issue open warnings now to all dope pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers. It’s time to leave Detroit. Hit Eight Mile Road. 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.” 

Laura Weber Davis/WDET

That quote became a focal point and rallying cry against Young. Not for the entire message, but for the ill-conceived notion that Young wanted white residents to leave the city of Detroit. Or that he wanted criminals to instead invade white suburbs.

That image of Young — as inherently racist and corruptible — dogged the man and his message of a black city’s vitality throughout his career, and even after his death.

What was it like to be the man behind the message, to try to shape the conversation around a mayor who loved the fight as much as he loved profanity?

I tell people, I was white the entire time I worked for him, and he didn’t seem to mind,” says Bob Berg, founder of Berg Muirhead public relations firm and former press secretary to Coleman Young. Berg says Young employed many white people in his administration.

He had a 50-50 [racial split] administration, because he truly believed we go up or down together,” says Berg.

Berg began working for Young in Detroit in January of 1983, after working for many years in Lansing for then Gov. Bill Milliken. He says when he started in Detroit the relationship between the city and the media was at a real low point. And he says Mayor Young was compounding the fracture by taking lengthy breaks from media engagement after bad interviews.

My theory with the mayor [was]… you need to go out [and talk to media] more often,” says Berg.

Gov. Milliken and Young were friends and had a good working relationship. Berg says Milliken and Young both understood the importance of Detroit in the statewide economy. Berg says people in the suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s didn’t acknowledge that the suburbs needed a vital Detroit.

I think there’s more of a realization now… that that’s just not realistic,” and the suburbs need the city, says Berg.

To hear more of Berg’s conversation on Detroit Today, click on the audio player above.

Image credit: WDET Archive

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