Today, August 27, the people of Montgomery, Alabama will elect a new mayor, and the result will likely be historic. Current mayor Todd Strange, who was elected in 2007 when then-mayor Bobby Bright was elected to the US House of Representatives, is not seeking re-election, and of the twelve qualifying candidates, most of them, including most of the frontrunners, are African-American. Put bluntly, Montgomery will probably have its first-ever black mayor.
As a place, Montgomery is heavy with symbolism and history. Of course, it was the first capitol of the ill-fated Confederate States of America; it is also the state capitol of Alabama where Governor George Wallace implemented his segregationist agenda in the 1960s. Slaves were once auctioned in Court Square, about a block from City Hall, and within a few blocks of that City Hall are the sites of Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955 and the attack on the Freedom Riders in 1961, as well as the route of the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965. The city’s first black elected officials – four city councilpersons, one woman and three men – took office in the fall of 1975, forty-four years ago. In Montgomery’s two-hundred-year history, so far the mayor has always been white and male.
Certainly, whomever wins the mayoral election next week will achieve a personal victory – it is quite an accomplishment to become a mayor, moreover of a state capitol that is also home to a quarter-million people, two Air Force bases, and five colleges – but, this one will also be a symbolic victory and a significant statement about the city’s present and future. Montgomery has, in recent decades, shifted to have a majority-black population, which has so far not been reflected in either a city-council majority or a mayor. (By contrast, at the time of Rosa Parks’ arrest, Montgomery was about 60% white.) Though I’m more interested in a mayor’s skills, abilities, and ideas than in his or her race, I do believe that we all recognize the fact that, given our city’s history, it is high time for this moment.
However, having an African-American mayor won’t instantaneously alter or repair Montgomery’s history, nor will it in-and-of-itself change Montgomery’s present circumstances. The next mayor will face significant challenges: struggling public schools, a regressive tax structure, little public transportation, a lack of recycling options. I’ve heard candidates say in public forums that they want to “bring people together” and “move the city forward,” and those are commendable goals, but . . . the task will be to implement programs that give people cause for coming together. No matter the name (or race) of the winner, most Montgomerians will then shift to a distinctly pragmatic attitude: okay, now let’s see what you’re going to do.
That will be my attitude as well. Having lived in Montgomery my entire life, I have seen my hometown change dramatically. Affluent suburbs and most of the shopping options have moved eastward, and private schools have doubled and tripled in size. Downtown has gone from being virtually empty at night and on weekends to housing a reinvigorated entertainment district. And with the prosperity of first the Southern Poverty Law Center then Equal Justice Initiative, I’ve seen what I never would have imagined in the 1980s and ’90s: the prominent placement of nationally renowned social-justice history markers and sites. I hear people sometimes claim that Montgomery hasn’t changed . . . Anyone old enough to have seen the intersection of Taylor and Vaughn roads go from cow fields to a commercial epicenter can’t deny that Montgomery has changed. I think they mean that it hasn’t changed in the ways they’ve wanted. The questions now are: what will change next, and will those changes be for the better of all or to the detriment of some? The new mayor, who will serve a term through late 2023, must be able to answer those questions with actions and policies that have real effects on the lives of real people, which will be the way that our city can transcend the history that we should never forget as we hope to leave it behind.