Montgomery, Ala., Welcomes Its First African-American Mayor: raceAhead


It always takes too much time.

Montgomery, Ala., became the first capital of the Confederate States of America in 1861, and despite quickly losing that dubious honor to Richmond, Va., remained the determined defender of white supremacist sentiment for generations.

Nearly 100 years later, it seemed not much had changed.

In 1955, a fearless civil rights expert named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to adhere to the Jim Crow restrictions enforced by the Montgomery bus system, catalyzing a boycott and protest movement that slowly captivated the nation. 

But it took 10 years after her arrest before the 1965 Voting Rights Act was finally passed; ten years of marching, protesting, advocating, and organizing to end the segregation and disenfranchisement which helped make Montgomery the epicenter of necessary civil rights work.

So, it is no small milestone that the city has elected its first African-American mayor in its 200-year history. 

Steven Reed, a Montgomery County probate judge, beat white television station owner David Woods in a decisive runoff vote last night, gaining 32,918 votes to Woods’ 16,010.  “Let the record show tonight, above all… what we can do when we come together in this city and we build around positivity, around opportunity, and all the things that tie us together versus those things that keep us apart,” Reed said at an impromptu victory party.

Reed graduated from Morehouse, a historically Black college in Atlanta, got his MBA from Vanderbilt, and became the first Black probate judge in Montgomery County in 2012. An outspoken advocate for LGBTQ civil rights, he became the first Alabama judge to issue same-sex marriage licenses in February 2015. He was forced to stop a month later after a ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court. “I am bound by this order from the state’s highest court, whether I agree with it or not,” he said in a statement.

Montgomery-based pastor Rev. Edward J. Nettles told the New York Times that Reed’s election “will send a signal to the entire country that Montgomery is moving forward in a positive way.” The city has a population of 200,000 and is 60% African American, but has been stuck in a retrograde way of thinking, he says. “There’s a generation that’s older than him. They can’t seem to get past the politics and status quo of the past. They’re still locked in a particular mind-set.”

Reed’s election comes on the heels of another significant first: The National Museum of Peace and Justice, the country’s first-ever memorial to the more than 4,000 victims of racial terror lynchings, opened in Montgomery last year.  

The memorial helped spark an important conversation in its new home town.

On the day the museum opened, the cover of the Montgomery Advertiser was populated only with the names of 300 of those victims under the headline “Time To Face The Past.” They apologized for their part in the horrors of Jim Crow. “The Montgomery Advertiser recognizes its own shameful place in the history of these dastardly, murderous deeds.”

With atonement comes the opportunity to include those who have been excluded.

“This election has never been about me,” Mr. Reed told the cheering crowd. “This election has never been about just my ideas. It’s been about all the hopes and dreams that we have as individuals and collectively in this city.”

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