The Long Shadow of Racism Hangs Over Montgomery’s First Black Mayor

The city is struggling to shed its long history of racism.

by Trevor Bach
Oct 22 2019, 6:15pm

A statue at the memorial to victims of lynchings in Montgomery, Alabama. AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

The night of October 8 in Montgomery, Alabama, Steven Reed, a charismatic 45-year-old probate judge, stood behind a podium inside a chic event space, surrounded by jubilant supporters, and spoke in soaring tones of unification. "Tonight is the beginning of a Montgomery that I believe we can all prosper from. Tonight is the beginning of a Montgomery that I believe changes the narrative of where we go from here."

Reed had just become the first African-American to be elected mayor of a city that’s 60 percent Black and figures as critically as anywhere into the story of race in America. Throughout the 1800s the downtown street on which he delivered his acceptance speech was home to slave warehouses. Just up the street is Court Square and its grand fountain, the plaza that served as among the country’s most prominent slave auction sites. In 1861 Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy, was sworn in on the steps of Montgomery’s Capitol—the same steps where, in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke after leading 25,000 marchers from Selma, a major turning point in the Civil Rights movement. King’s activism grew out of his role as pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, located just five blocks from a bus stop where Rosa Parks boarded a bus and famously refused to cede her seat to a white passenger in 1955.

More recently Montgomery, which has 200,000 residents, has also emerged as a place of national reckoning, after a highly acclaimed new museum and lynching memorial opened last year, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors and pushing a new conversation around the legacy of American bondage and racial terrorism. Yet as thousands celebrate a historic election, the city remains scarred by deep inequality and prejudice, and even Reed’s victory spurred displays of nasty bigotry. "Racism," Karen Jones, a prominent Montgomery activist, told me, "is alive and well."

The week after the election I met Jones at a Starbucks on the east side of town, near an upscale retail district. The clientele was both Black and white, and we sat less than two miles from Alabama State University, a historically Black school whose students played a key role in the city’s iconic bus boycott. Also nearby was the stately Montgomery Country Club—of which the outgoing mayor and other prominent city figures are members—which remains functionally all-white. The club abuts East Fairview Avenue, which, in Jones’ telling, neatly illustrates the city’s still divergent treatment of its citizens: Along the eastern end, near the country club and a neighborhood of exquisitely landscaped antebellum mansions, is an entertainment district where the authorities are lax about open drunkenness, the activist told me. Several blocks to the west, in a poorer, mostly Black neighborhood, police routinely dole out public intoxication tickets outside a liquor store. "The rules are so blatantly different on one street—one street!" Jones exclaimed. She added that in some neighborhoods the mere presence of a Black person is likely to attract a security guard. "Still," she emphasized, "there are places we can’t go in this city."

Much has been made of Montgomery’s recent renaissance. Its downtown, after decades of relative stagnation, is enjoying a flurry of development, with several new hotels, including a new $14 million Marriott, buzzy restaurants, and redevelopments like the Kress Building, which transformed a historic department store into a sleek mixed-use building. But the development also masks a deeper inequity: While previous mayors have focused on invigorating downtown and the mostly white east side, many of Montgomery’s predominantly Black neighborhoods, concentrated in the city’s west, are languishing. It’s a contrast "that’s not lost on anybody," Derryn Moten, chair of the history and political science department at Alabama State, told me. "There’s this latent anger about... that economic gap."

Alabama has among the country’s highest incarceration rates and its deadliest prisons; in Montgomery, as elsewhere, the legal system is disproportionately filled with African Americans. In 2014 a federal court ordered the city to end what was effectively a municipal debtors’ prison, although critics say the city’s Black residents are still targeted with discriminatory practices like ticket stacking, when cops issue multiple tickets at one traffic stop. Montgomery’s education system also remains highly segregated: While most white students attend magnet or private schools, the city’s predominantly Black traditional public schools, including Robert E. Lee High School, are underfunded and underperforming. The failing education system, and high crime, Moten told me, are leading Black families with means to flee the city.

It’s a persistent theme. After Reed’s victory, a local real estate agent was fired for posting a dog-whistle Facebook ad that implored residents unhappy with the results to "SELL That Home While The Market is HOT!" Another Facebook post, from a man named Rusty Beasley, was more explicit: "Monkey Town has a new monkey mayor!!" Jones, after being alerted to the post, promptly called Beasley’s manager at the wood products store where he works and promised a boycott unless he was fired. "Do you know what that will incite in some fools around here if we let him get a pass?" she explained.

Overwhelmingly, though, Reed’s victory has brought renewed hope. Even days after the election a surfeit of campaign signs remained visible in front of homes and businesses; in barber shops and cafeterias the memory of the night—"the fruition of a very long trek," as Moten put it, still glowed with an aura of pride. The mayor-elect, who was also the county’s first Black probate judge and is the son of the longtime leader of the Alabama Democratic Party’s Black caucus, has promised to invest in public transportation, address food deserts, and champion universal pre-K. His rhetoric is decidedly inclusive, and his appeal is broad. "When he takes his oath of office, I hope we plan for children to be there to witness," Jones told me, "to understand what it means to the older generation."

Reed takes that oath on November 12. It will be a stirring moment—promptly followed by a somber reminder of what remains an enduring struggle for racial justice: Less than a week later, in rural Dale County, some 80 miles to the southeast, dozens will gather for the murder trial of Aaron Smith, a former Montgomery police officer.

Early one morning in February 2016 Smith, who is white and was 23 years old at the time, was patrolling Mobile Heights, a lower income, predominantly Black neighborhood, when he stopped Gregory Gunn, a 59-year-old Black man who was walking home to his mother’s house after playing cards nearby. Moments later, Smith pursued Gunn to the small front porch of his neighbor’s house, where he shot him seven times. Smith has said he acted in self-defense. Seven white judges in Montgomery recused themselves from the case; one Black judge, Greg Griffin, was ultimately forced to recuse himself by the state’s supreme court because of an earlier Facebook post he wrote detailing a stop and frisk he was subjected to. More than three years later, a faded yellow sign bearing Gunn’s name still rises from patchy grass a few feet from the porch, near a window with cracking white paint.

"When I look right over where he was laying, in that spot right there, I can still envision him," Colvin Hinson, Gunn’s neighbor, told me. "I just leave the sign right there, and look at the sign instead." Hinson is a 70-year-old former construction worker who’s lived in Mobile Heights for over five decades. On October 8, he voted for Reed. "I wasn’t trying to make history," he said. "I just voted the way I voted because I thought he was the best man for the job."

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Trevor Bach is a journalist based in Detroit.