Montgomery elects its first ever black mayor in a historic vote

Il giudice Steven Reed è diventato sindaco della città del profondo Sud, culla del movimento per i diritti civili.

Steven Reed has been elected the 57th mayor of Montgomery, the capital of the US state of Alabama, becoming the first African American mayor in the town’s two hundred year history. Alabama, situated in the retrograde and conservative Deep South, is known for its stark contrasts. Historically it’s been the unfortunate stage of violent and discriminatory acts against citizens of African American descent carried out in the name of white supremacism.

Read more: Martin Luther King Jr., biography of the man who changed the civil rights movement forever

However, in the past few decades Montgomery has rapidly gained status as an important symbol in the fight against racism. It was here that in 1955 Rosa Parks was jailed for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a local bus (as dictated by the laws of the time). Montgomery was also the celebrated arrival point of the march that started in Selma on 7 March 1965 that forever changed the course of the national civil rights movement.

Who is Steven Reed

Given the town’s importance within the civil rights movement and the fact that most of its population is African American, one might be surprised that it’s never had a black mayor before. Undoubtedly, Democrat Steven Reed’s election will make its mark on history. The judge, 55 years old, defeated opponent David Woods with 32,918 votes to 16,010.

In his victory speech, Reed declared that “this election has never been about just my ideas. It’s been about all the hopes and dreams we have as individuals and collectively in this city”. The newly elected mayor is certainly no stranger to breaking records. In 2012, he was the first African American to become Probate Judge for the Montgomery County. Three years later, he was the first Probate Judge to issue same-sex marriage licences in Alabama.

civil rights mural in selma, alabama
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was inaugurated in Montgomery last year as a homage to the African American victims of racism, symbolising the profound changes the town has undergone © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A sign of genuine change

Many would say that the election of a black mayor in 2019 should be treated as a normal event that need not make the headlines as something remarkable. However, it can’t be forgotten that until very recently, Montgomery was one of the three cities in the Deep South with a population of over 100,000 people to have never had a black mayor. Thus, Reed’s election is a sign of genuine change, an accomplishment made possible by the many brave citizens who have campaigned and fought for equal civil rights over the past decades, costing them their freedom and lives in many cases.

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Inheriting the struggle

It’s important to remember the people who made this day possible. The key role played by Martin Luther King Jr., emblem and leader of the fight against racial discrimination, almost goes without saying. Amongst the principal champions of the movement in Montgomery were Fred Gray, American activist and lawyer who dealt with many civil rights cases; Rufus Lewis, who according to Martin Luther King Jr. had “an inextinguishable passion for social justice”; Johnnie Carr, civil rights leader and president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA); Jo Ann Robinson, teacher who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December 1995; and Clauedette Colvin, arrested at the young age of 15 for refusing to give up her seat to a white person, months prior to Rosa Parks’ comparable act of civil disobedience.

Towards a new era

On 12 November, Reed will be sworn in as mayor in a part of the city only a few blocks away from the exact spot in which MLK gave his famous “How long, not long” speech in 1965. The speech informed the black community that obtaining equal civil rights was something that couldn’t be achieved instantly and required time. Reed has affirmed that he wants to be judged solely by his actions and not by the colour of his skin. Nevertheless, this historic moment represents a further step towards the change advocated and fought for by King at a time when African American citizens were denied even the right to vote.

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