Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Can Steven Reed, the first black mayor in Montgomery, Alabama, reconcile the city's civil rights legacy and racial justice needs with its Confederate past?
In 1944, the African-American attorney Arthur Madison was disbarred after challenging the literacy tests in his home city of Montgomery, Alabama, that were constructed to prevent black people from registering to vote. Today, Montgomery is poised to install its first African-American mayor, Steven Reed, in the capital city of what was once one of the most hostile states toward black participation in democracy. Reed won two-thirds of the votes from Tuesday’s election to succeed Mayor Todd Strange, who’s led the city since 2009.
Montgomery’s population is 60 percent African American, but five of its nine city council members are white, including its president, which speaks to the level of racial segregation and political polarization that still exists in the city known for spawning the modern-day civil rights movement. The question is whether Reed’s election is a signal that black voting strength here is finally reaching its unencumbered potential, or a sign that whites are abandoning southern urban enclaves like Montgomery to reinforce their political power in the south’s suburban and rural districts.
It’s beyond dispute that African-Americans have been politically empowered since the days when Alabama was siccing dogs and spraying firehoses at black people to stop them from voting. As Associated Press race reporter Errin Whack pointed out on Twitter, the number of black people registered to vote has multiplied considerably since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. Reed was elected despite Alabama’s many attempts to make voting harder for black people in recent years.
Only 3,200 black folks were registered to vote in Montgomery county three years before the Voting Rights Act. Today, there are 84,779. pic.twitter.com/cn0PAHGIMt— This Is A Dominique Devereaux Stan Account (@emarvelous) October 9, 2019
Reed’s win adds to the growing number of African-American mayors currently governing major southern cities, including Levar Stoney, who was elected mayor of Richmond, Virginia, in 2016. Randall Woodfin, mayor of Birmingham, Alabama; Vi Lyles, mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina; Chokwe Antar Lumumba, mayor of Jackson, Mississippi; Latoya Cantrell of New Orleans and Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, all were elected in 2017.
Add in this week’s election of Timothy Ragland as the first black mayor of Talladega, Alabama and it’s close to a certified sweep. Governing Magazine asked in 2017 where all the black mayors went: It’s clear they went south.
Reed’s win is particularly notable, though, because it happened in a city that has a legacy steeped in voting rights and civil rights agency. When black activists such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged from Montgomery in the 1950s, they were merely trying to win equal legal protections that had been granted on paper to emancipated African Americans nearly 100 years prior.
Yet, while Montgomery is regarded as an epicenter for civil rights activism today, before that, it was known as a primary headquarters for the slave trade inside the U.S. and the Confederate government. Throughout the 19th century, Montgomery was one of the most active slave trading sites in the country—by 1860, two-thirds of Montgomery County’s population was enslaved black people, many of whom arrived there through the trading posts located in downtown Montgomery.
Montgomery is also where the government of the Confederate States of America was created and where its first president lived in 1861, though only for a few months before they were relocated to Richmond, Virginia. Walking through Montgomery today, you’d never know that the Confederate government’s tenure there was so short-lived. The Confederate White House still exists, supported by state tax dollars, in pristine condition in Montgomery, sitting directly across the street from the Alabama State Capitol and the Alabama State House buildings.
And though former Alabama governor Robert Bentley took the rebel Confederate flag down from state capitol grounds, there is no shortage of Confederate monuments, statues, street names, and other memorabilia situated throughout the city. A statue of Jefferson Davis still stands in front of the state capitol building.
Reed is a black mayor stepping into that landscape of painful reminders of the grip of white supremacy as captured in those Confederate markers. It’s a legacy that has as much claim on the first black mayor’s election as does the city’s civil rights heritage.
“Since we are the cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of the modern civil rights movement, we have to begin to look at how to reconcile these two histories,” says Georgette Norman, a local historian who served as the first director of the Rosa Parks Museum at Montgomery’s Troy University. “We have been looking at this as an either-or kind of history. I’m hoping this new mayor looks at an all-inclusive memory … to look at both things and how they intersect.”
Up until maybe a year ago, you didn’t have to go far in Montgomery to find monuments and memorabilia dedicated to Confederate history, but you had to go out of your way to find dedicated monuments to civil rights history. The grounds have shifted on that front, though. In 2018, the civil rights legal organization Equal Justice Initiative opened The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which sits across six acres of land near downtown Montgomery, dedicated to the thousands of black victims of lynching and racial terror throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. EJI also opened the Legacy Museum in downtown Montgomery to exhibit how black families were torn apart and sold off during slavery, and how black mobility was constrained and criminalized in the years after slavery.
Norman is currently working on building the Alabama African-American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium, identifying dozens of places throughout Montgomery, and beyond around Alabama, that have historical significance, and listing them in the World Monuments Fund. Reed’s election seems a reflection of this shift in the complexion of who and what Montgomery is deciding to honor.
The challenge for Reed is escaping the trap of simply being a “First Black” who falls short of bringing the kind of demonstrative change for black people that is expected from the African-American leaders they elect. That kind of change is needed in areas like west Montgomery, where the bulk of the city’s lowest income African American families have been sequestered for decades. In the early 1960s, Alabama built a highway exchange system that ravaged hundreds of black homes, businesses, and communities, and the black families living to the west of Interstate 65 haven’t recovered since.
A study last year conducted by Envision Montgomery 2040, meanwhile, revealed “a concentration of poorly rated structures or blighted properties on the city’s west side.” It was just last year that “for the first time since 1963,” the city began a comprehensive citywide development plan that will be guided by community input.
But plans are already afoot to build a new recreation and entertainment district on the westside that will include a waterpark complete with a “climbing tower, bouldering wall, canopy high ropes course, beer garden with additional concessions, retail shopping and an amphitheater”—a $50 million investment from the city and county that is scheduled to open in 2022.
Reed will have to manage that project without it leading to mass displacement of poor, black families, which would be further injury to those already incurred though the highway expansion project of the 60s.
Perry Varner, a black entrepreneur and social media strategist who was born in Montgomery and lived there most of his life, is hopeful that Reed’s administration will open up doors for African Americans to benefit from this new westside waterpark enterprise. He opened and managed several small businesses in Montgomery in the 2000s, when the city was transforming its once-barren downtown into a hotel-and-dining paradise.
However, “[most] of the businesses in downtown Montgomery are owned by people who don’t look like [black people], and that’s true for everything from contracting to business ownership—we haven’t had a chance to capitalize on any of it,” says Perry. “That’s why we are looking for leadership from Reed to give people of color and LGBTQ people new opportunities here ,because while Montgomery has been growing, we’ve been left out of the opportunity gap.”
Montgomery’s overall population has actually experienced a slight decline since its 2010 peak population of 205,764. The drop is driven by white people leaving the city in droves—a 30 percent decrease between 2000 and 2016. Meanwhile, the city’s Asian, Latino, and African-American population has risen significantly—the black population alone added 20,000 residents, driving up its representation from 50 percent of the population in 2000 to 60 percent today. Which helps explain how Montgomery was finally able to, in its 200th year of existence, finally elect a black mayor.
Varner was not part of that black population growth. He left the city in 2010 to pursue opportunities that he felt were lacking in Montgomery at the time for black creatives. He eventually landed in Birmingham, where he says many creatives of color have fled to, along with nearby Atlanta, when they couldn’t find a clear path to wealth in Montgomery. Varner says it will take Reed a few terms to make real change, but that under the new black leadership he’d move back to Montgomery “in a heartbeat” if the right opportunities emerged.
”It’s been my dream to live in a Montgomery under this kind of leadership with visible unlimited potential and where glass ceilings have been broken,” said Varner, “and to bring back what I’ve learned living in Atlanta, New York City, and Birmingham to help be a part of the movement that turns Montgomery into a cultural epicenter of the South.”