“I’m actually supporting Steven Reed,” Minor said, explaining the enthusiasm she had, as a black woman and nearly lifelong resident of Montgomery, for the other candidate: Reed, a probate judge and the son of a prominent political family, who emerged from a runoff race on Tuesday as the first African American elected to lead Alabama’s capital city.
His campaign, and its success, has sent a volt of excitement and validation through the black community, which makes up 60% of the city’s population.
Montgomery is fundamentally shaped by tandem legacies as a capital in the nation’s vicious racial past and as a cradle for the civil rights movement. And many who grew up under the shadow of that history could not help but hope that they were seeing the start of a thrilling new chapter.
“This is our season,” said Yolanda Sayles Robinson, 59, who was born in the city and described herself as a product of the 1960s. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”
Reed entered the nonpartisan runoff with Woods, a white television station owner, after advancing from what had been a 12-person race. In the election Tuesday, Reed captured 67% of the vote, according to unofficial results released by the city. Now, Montgomery joins Birmingham and Selma, two other monumental battlegrounds in Alabama’s civil rights fight, in selecting young, African American men as mayors.
“You believed that we didn’t have to be defined by our past,” Reed told the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that had jammed into a hall for his election night gathering and chanted his name and “One Montgomery” as he ascended the stage. “It’s not going to be about the first. It’s not even going to be about the best. It’s going to be about the impact we make on the lives of others.”
In some corners, Montgomery, set on the Alabama River with a population of about 200,000, has gone through a revitalization.
The history that has long haunted the city has evolved into a source of a boon, as a national memorial to victims of lynching and a museum of slavery and mass incarceration draw large crowds. New hotels and other developments have popped up downtown, and the streets around the State Capitol are dotted with restaurants bustling with young people. Hyundai, the automaker, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a plant that has been a major job provider.
Still, the city’s gains have not been spread evenly. Pockets of the city have streets lined with overgrown lots and hollowed out homes, and there are neighborhoods mired in poverty and crime.
There are also concerns about losing talented young people to bigger cities, attracted by their wealth of options for careers and culture. Robinson’s daughter, who is in her 30s, left for New York City and most likely will never return. “That hurt my heart,” she said of her leaving. “We need to have opportunity here.”
During his campaign, Reed talked about bringing about progress “regardless of neighborhood, regardless of ZIP code.” He said he would encourage investment in education and seek to improve ties between the police and the city’s minority communities.
He joined a packed field of candidates who stepped forward after the incumbent, Todd Strange, who has held the office since 2009, said he was not running for reelection. Ten of those candidates were black and included a lawyer, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general and an employee of the state Department of Corrections.
Reed received 42% of the vote during the first mayoral election in August, and was trailed by Woods, who had campaigned on his business expertise. On Tuesday, Woods, whose political experience was limited to an unsuccessful congressional bid in 2008, signaled his support for Reed as he conceded. “A unified Montgomery,” he said in a television interview, “is a lot stronger than a divided Montgomery.”
Reed was the first black probate judge in Montgomery County, and a graduate of Morehouse, the historically black college in Atlanta, and Vanderbilt, where he earned an MBA. He also has deep ties to the community. His father, Joe Reed, has been the longtime leader of the black caucus of the state Democratic Party, and his family has been a fixture in the city. Some voters recounted memories of Reed as a teenager or seeing him as a young boy in church, and shared a certain pride in following his rise.
Pierre Flowers, however, had no clue who the man going around shaking hands in his barber shop was. But as Reed struck up a conversation with him, he was taken by how unassuming the candidate was. “He seemed like he had a good vibe,” Flowers, 28, said just after voting for him. “Why not?”
The vote, for some, carried deep meaning, even drawing comparisons to 2008, when President Barack Obama was elected. “Here we are,” said Derrick Marshall, 63, a teachers’ aide who has lived in Montgomery virtually his entire life, “standing at the door of another significant event.”
The city was incorporated in December 1819 and served as the first capital of the Confederate States of America. Martin Luther King Jr. also planned the Montgomery bus boycott, the protest that made Rosa Parks a household name, in a church in the city.
Evidence of that history abounds in a highway sign advertising the First White House of the Confederacy, and the school and thoroughfare named for Jefferson Davis, the confederacy’s only president. It also lingers in less visible ways, in the racial tensions that Montgomery, as the rest of Alabama, has not been able to settle.
“It’s been an incredible education,” said Kim Anderson, a white resident of Montgomery originally from the Finger Lakes area of New York. “It’s been an education that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.”
But many looked at the election as a sign of the progress still being made. It was a reflection of a shift underway as a younger generation — one decades removed from the civil rights movements of their parents and grandparents yet also mobilized by the racial struggles of their own era — has stepped forward.
Reed joins Randall Woodfin, the 38-year-old mayor of Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, and Darrio Melton, 40, who has been the mayor of Selma since 2016. Talladega also elected its first black mayor, Timothy Ragland, 29, on Tuesday.
On election night, as speakers thumped with music — with a playlist that included Beyoncé, Usher and the Isley Brothers — the crowd at Reed’s party watched local television news projected onto a wall, cheering as the vote totals flashing across the screen edged in their direction.
Reed’s win would be a “blessing,” some said, and an answer to their prayers. It was something they had sought for generations, but Sylvia Norman was among those who saw the delay as a gift of sorts. Years without a black mayor, she said, had strengthened the community’s resolve to make it happen.
“It didn’t take too long,” Norman said as the crowd roared around her. “God did it in his time.” She noticed on the screen that more precincts had reported and that Reed’s significant lead had solidified. She cheered, danced and jumped as it looked like that time might soon arrive.
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