By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
Sometimes when you work in politics, as I did for some time, or in the news business, which I do now, it’s easy to let the magnitude of a moment pass you by. Politicos are trained to keep their heads down and focus on what’s next during big, pressure-filled moments. Likewise, journalists are supposed to be dispassionate when big news breaks, concentrating on getting the story done right and on time.
Hurricanes, tornadoes, political scandals and resignations – Alabama has seen its share of big news moments over the last several years, and through them all I’ve tried to focus on the task at hand and be “professional.”
So, it’s no surprise that over the last few weeks, as Montgomery inched closer to electing its first ever black mayor, I kept an arms length from the magnitude of the story. It was not by choice, but rather training and instinct, an unconscious second nature to stay above the emotion of it all. It wasn’t until I walked into my polling station on the campus of Huntingdon College when the significance of what was happening really caught up with me. A reporter and photographer from The New York Times were there to capture images and anecdotes from the day. I suddenly remembered that other national outlets had reported on the Montgomery election as well, and a few national reporters I know had asked me about the race in the last few weeks. And it hit me.
“Of course they are here to cover the election,” I thought to myself. “This is a really big deal.”
It IS a really big deal. When the votes were counted and Steven Reed emerged victorious in a landslide as Montgomery’s first ever elected African-American mayor, it was a watershed moment for this town and this state. Much of it, of course, is symbolic, but symbols mean a great deal. As a city known both as the “Cradle of the Confederacy” and the “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement,” the duality of Montgomery’s history isn’t lost on anyone from around here. It’s also not lost on anyone, whether or not we like to talk about it, that racial tensions have festered here, more than fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King last walked these streets. Electing a black mayor won’t by itself fix all that and it certainly doesn’t erase the past, but it is an important symbolic step into a new future.
If you want to see evidence of that symbolism, go look at the photos and watch the videos from Reed’s election night celebration, beautifully captured by the team at The Montgomery Advertiser. Sure, a lot of the attendees are Reed’s friends and supporters. But looking at the faces, you can see a level of jubilation beyond that of a mere political win. A bridge has been crossed. A barrier has been broken.
(By the way, for a much better and more thorough piece about the significance of the election, read Advertiser Editor Bro Krift’s essay from Tuesday night.)
Reed is certainly aware of the magnitude of the moment. Listen to his victory speech, and you’ll hear him figuratively bridge the problematic past to a more hopeful future.
“No city, no community should be defined by the worst things that have happened. You grow by how you respond from those things,” Reed said. “And looking at the results tonight, and looking at this crowd tonight and all the support, we have grown a lot in Montgomery over the years.”
Reed also knows that his election is much more than symbolism. In fact, when I first interviewed him back in April, he spoke in practical terms of the race factor would impact his ability to do the job.
“You know, the history of what may or may not happen is certainly attractive to a number of people. But ultimately, you’ll be measured by what you do.” he told me. “With our history, having an African-American mayor presents the opportunity to have some different discussions with different people than about how far we’ve changed.”
“And I think as it relates to having some ‘family conversations,’ if you will, in this city, my ties with the community are deep. My connection to this community is sincere and I believe that gives me the opportunity to have some conversations across this city that maybe other mayors have not have been able to.”
What conversations? About crime. About guns. About poverty and education. Mayor Todd Strange has been a tremendously effective mayor and deserves a lot of credit for the ways Montgomery has moved forward over the last ten years. But, Reed is right. Strange can’t have the same conversations in the same communities that a black mayor could. And it just might be those conversations and the level of trust that is built from them that can be the spark that leads to lasting change in the Capital City.
The task won’t be easy. Montgomery is fraught with hard-to-fix problems, and Mayor-elect Reed should be afforded the space and opportunity to address them. The good news is I think he has a solid sense of what those problems are, some fine ideas about how to solve them, and an open mind to innovate when something isn’t working.
My parents both grew up in Montgomery during the Civil Rights era. My dad was watching through a front classroom window of Lanier High School when State Troopers escorted the first few African-American students into the school. By the time my mom graduated Lee High School in 1969, there were a few dozen black students enrolled. Talking to them this week, they were more interested in Reed’s younger age (45) and what issues he wanted to tackle, particularly education. But the significance of the election, 50 years after that turbulent time, wasn’t lost on them.
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone. As a city and state, we should mark the magnitude of this moment and celebrate its deep symbolism. We should use it as a unique opportunity to tie the binds of community stronger. After all, these historic milestones only pass once, so we had better not let it pass by without taking full advantage.
I personally am glad that Mayor-elect Reed, while understanding the moment, isn’t lost in it. He’s focused on the practicalities ahead, even while the rest of us take a moment to exhale and to celebrate the symbolism. The practicalities are his job now.
We work to hold all public officials accountable, but we wish him all the best as he gets started, with hope for progress and growth for our city, and joy in the milestone that few could have imagined two generations ago.
Todd Stacy is the publisher of the Alabama Daily News. Email him at [email protected]