Milliken and Young: A political odd couple who pulled together for Detroit

William G. Milliken State Park and Detroit Riverfront | Image by arthurpalac from Pixabay

William G. Milliken and Coleman A. Young — Michigan’s longest-serving governor and Detroit’s longest-serving mayor — were long known as an odd couple. It’s true that they held opposing political party affiliations, had contrasting demeanors and hailed from very different hometowns.

However, both men were raised during the Great Depression, were World War II vets and served in the Michigan Senate together during the 1960s. 

Milliken, who was governor between 1969 and 1983, died on Oct. 18 at age 97. Young preceded him almost 22 years earlier on Nov. 29, 1997.

Both men left their mark on Michigan and in the city. Today, you can wander around William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor along the riverfront. And the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center houses government offices and courts downtown.

There’s no doubt that Detroit’s history would be very different without their partnership.

Although Young, the sharp-tongued Senate Democratic floor leader, often blasted Milliken, the mild-mannered, moderate Republican Michigan governor between 1969 and 1973, the men were kindred spirits post-1974 after Young’s historic election as Detroit mayor. That’s something that we don’t see often in contemporary politics on Capitol Hill and in Lansing.

Early in Milliken’s tenure, for example, he chose to open a Detroit office to help manage and carry out gubernatorial affairs. The move was considered important amid the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit rebellion, intensified white flight from the inner city, and GOP President Richard Nixon’s law-and-order rhetoric.  

Meanwhile, in March 1969, Milliken delayed a move into a newly state-acquired mansion. He made the decision after learning that the deed on the home given to the state by Howard Sober, a Lansing trucking executive, had restrictive covenant language forbidding occupancy by Blacks. After Frank Kelley, state attorney general, ruled that the discriminatory language was unlawful, Milliken moved into the home.

That was one of the ways Milliken showed his political moderation.

“I had little reason to believe that Milliken would depart from the course of his right-wing predecessor,” Young wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “Hard Stuff.” “But I’ve never had a more productive relationship with a public servant.”

During the 1970s, Milliken and Young worked together on funding issues designed to keep cash-strapped Detroit afloat. 

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“For a state where the hostilities between state and city, city and suburb, black and white, have been deep and basic, that, in itself, is a fairly remarkable turnabout,” Joe Stroud, Detroit Free Press editorial page editor, wrote in 1977.

In 1978, Young published a press release endorsing William Fitzgerald, a Democrat for Michigan governor. However, Young continued work closely with Milliken and many Detroiters, including Blacks, voted for the Traverse City Republican.  

“Milliken became the first Republican for governor to carry Wayne County in 30 years because many whites voted for him in backlash against Young’s endorsement of Fitzgerald, and Blacks in Detroit voted for the governor in record numbers because word was passed on the sly that Young’s endorsement of Fitzgerald means that the mayor wanted them to vote for Milliken,” political reporter Remer Tyson of the Free Press wrote at the time. 

In September 1979, Milliken said Young “is a whale of a mayor. Michigan history will record him as one of the most effective mayors, and I cannot think of a more effective voice for the city of Detroit than Coleman Young.”  

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When Detroit experienced increased crime during the mid-1970s, Milliken ordered the Michigan State Police to patrol state freeways inside the city. The men worked together to woo the Republican National Committee to select Detroit for its 1980 convention. 

They also voted on securing state legislative approval to allow Detroit to increase its income tax to avert bankruptcy in 1981. Lt. Gov. James Brickley with his Senate vote broke to tie and allowed the legislation to reach Milliken’s desk for signature.

“I personally believe that Mayor Young has done an excellent job in Detroit,” Milliken said in a 1981 story published by the Grand Rapids Press. “He has cut costs, taken some hard measures and made no bones about his willingness to confront the special interest groups to try to bring the city back into manageable proportions. That city is in very deep distress today. … If Detroit should fail, Michigan will be in such trouble that we will find it difficult to recover. We are tied together.”

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.