By Bonnyeclaire Smith-Stewart
Personal interest in the recent mayoral election in Birmingham, Alabama could be attributed to three connections. It is the city of my birth. I am an African-American woman who experienced firsthand segregation. My interest in history commands notice of change. As a historian, my vision extends beyond current events to the preceding journey. Therefore, while witnessing the 2017 mayoral race in Birmingham, Alabama, my vision sights how Randall Woodfin has become the fifth Black mayor of that city.
The thirty-six-year-old challenger, Randall Woodfin, unseated the sixty-eight-year-old mayor, William Bell on October 3, 2017 in a nonpartisan runoff election. His defeat was a 58 percent vote lead over Bell’s 41 percent. Woodfin, a Birmingham native, served as a Democratic board member and a city prosecutor. Labeled as a progressive candidate, he has been publically supported by local and national populists and liberals such as Bernie Sanders. Many attribute the national interest in Woodfin as a part of the Democratic campaign to support local and state candidates who will strengthen their position for the 2020 presidential election. Birmingham, as Alabama’s largest city, sets a precedent for the current Democratic climate. After announcing his candidacy a year ago, he charged that Mayor Bell “hasn’t done enough” for residents living beyond downtown, whom he said “deserve better”. His opponent touted his accomplishments towards achieving his goal of changing the city’s “Bombingham image” locally, nationally and globally – asking for more time to finish the job. One could ponder how their platforms translated to votes and what the outcome of this election means for the citizens who voted.
Some may observe this election simply as “more of the same”. Were Randall’s predecessors simply a continuation of the status quo…merely the putting of a Black face on the same inefficiencies and petty corruption in government …a failure in resolving the pressing needs of the people…getting rich, fat and sassy while the rest of the people of Birmingham, not so much? While others may regard this as a positive “passing of the torch” from those of my generation to my children’s…a young, untainted, progressive, liberal…ready to unseat the status quo?
While these lenses are valid, the historical prism begs for background information on the political path leading to this nationally publicized election. Woodfin will be the youngest mayor of the state’s premier city since David Fox (white) in 1893, also in office at age 36. As the fifth Black mayor of the “first city”, the historical prismatic perspective may provide clarification for some and distortion for others. Hopefully, the facts will shed enough light to afford a truthful transparency.
Woodfin’s four mayoral predecessors were incumbent William Bell (2010-2017), Larry Langford (2007-2009), Bernard Kincaid (1999-2007), and its first Black mayor, Richard Arrington (1971-1999). I served as a volunteer during Arrington’s campaign in two capacities. My dear friend, the late Gussie Harris, phoned me with a call to action for the unannounced candidate. She explained the plan was to run an unprecedented grass-roots campaign utilizing college students in a door-to-door weekend drive for increasing voters and soliciting votes. They needed someone to feed hundreds of volunteers on a zero budget every weekend throughout the election. Accepting the challenge, the drive for a continuous supply of loaves and fishes was solicited within the Black community. As a member of Jack and Jill, I was asked to coordinate members as ushers for the inauguration and hostesses for the mayoral victory reception. The significance of the grass-roots campaign is that Randall Woodfin used the same successful method to mobilize his voter base ushering him to victory. His strategy role model, Richard Arrington, Jr. (1934- ), was inaugurated in 1980 in the city that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once referred to as “the most segregated city in America”, going on to be reelected to five terms. Time will tell if Woodfin will be as popular for successful reelection.
History begs to ask, “Upon whose shoulders did he stand to rise to such heights?” Before mayor, he was a member of the City Council. However, attorney Arthur D. Shores (1904-1966) was the first Black to serve from 1968-1977. And as for mayor, before Arrington was elected in 1971, he was inspired by the first Black mayor of a major U.S. city in 1967, Carl Stokes of Cleveland, Ohio. But wait, hold onto your seats because many Black men were elected to public office after the Civil War during Reconstruction. Pierre Caliste Landry of Donaldville, Louisiana was the first African-American elected mayor of a U.S. town in 1868.
The immediate impacts of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must be recognized for the political doors opened by Woodfin’s predecessors. However, the cheers of America’s civil rights activists ring backwards to 1619 from the shores of Africa when resistance to slavery began and continued through the now-almost-four-hundred-year-old campaign for equality. The movement for human equality by Americans of African descent has maintained a presence and an insistence throughout the history of this great country. The hope is that all elected officials and especially those of African heritage will carry the legacy of progress for all constituents and in so doing, will improve the plight of Blacks for the short-term current events and the long-term historical perspective.
Bonnyeclaire Smith-Stewart is an independent historian dedicated to researching and telling the stories of ordinary African-Americans. At age sixteen, after being born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, she traveled North as a participant in the American Friends’ (Quaker) “Southern Negro Student Project”. After completing high school in Connecticut, she earned a B.A. at Sarah Lawrence College and M.A. in History at Clark Atlanta U. Her goal is to inspire the documentation of Black family history through multiple mediums as reflected on her Web site: 4MillionVoices.com, which is dedicated to the lost voices of the enslaved African-Americans in the United States.