When Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young came here last week to launch a voter-registration drive, this city's black leadership showed up in force for a gala luncheon at Virginia Union University. There was one notable absence, however--Roy A. West, this city's embattled black mayor.
West stayed away in a huff, contending that his name had been deliberately struck from the invitation list by his archrival, Richmond's first black mayor, Henry L. Marsh III. Marsh, now a City Council member, said it was just an oversight.
The event underscored the bitter, personal feud that has troubled many here since West teamed up with four white City Council members 14 months ago to depose Marsh and be elected mayor by the council. In doing so, West offered himself as a conciliator in the power struggle that long has divided the nine-member council along racial lines.
Yet in achieving the harmony he sought with conservative whites, West opened a split in the city's black community. His frequent criticism of the city's predominantly black school system and his efforts to undo some of the hallmarks of Marsh's tumultuous five-year reign as mayor have triggered debate among blacks as to whether West has, as one critic put it, "sold out."
In a sense, the debate represents a clash between two radically different styles of leadership in Richmond's black community and a new stage in the political evolution of this city of 219,000, now 52 percent black.
Marsh, 49, a product of the civil rights movement, expanded the largely ceremonial job as mayor into a power base that propelled him into national prominence while infuriating Richmond's conservative business establishment.
West, 53, a middle school principal known best as a strict disciplinarian, is an austere, no-nonsense political novice who has challenged some of the fundamental tenets of black political dogma.
The contrast has been a shock to some here, particularly to the entrenched black leadership. "I haven't talked with him since last year," said state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), considered the state's most influential black politician and a key West supporter last year. "When he makes statements, he doesn't see the need to check with black leadership. So where does he check?"
Marsh's answer is that West doesn't want advice from his own community. "Basically, West has waged war on the black community's institutions ever since he's been mayor," says Marsh, who makes no bones about wanting his old job back. "He's been exercising the politics of division at a time when blacks need the politics of unity. . . .On all the basic gut issues, we find Roy West siding with whites."
West responds that Marsh is "obsessed with power" and that he has cynically employed racial rhetoric to manipulate the black community "with lies and distortions."
"Marsh represents the old machine kind of boss and this is what we as blacks fought against," he says. "I'm going to make sure that blacks get their piece of the pie but I'm not going to stop talking to other folk.
"We tried white racism in this city and that didn't work," West says. "We tried black racism to some extent and that didn't work. Everything in this town is not black. You don't look after the black interest and forget about everybody else."
West has kept his distance from the established black groups that were at the forefront of the decades-long struggle for political equality and civil rights in Richmond. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when the city was wrestling with the legacy of segregation, such groups as the Crusade for Voters, associations of black ministers and the NAACP operated in the political wilderness, filing lawsuits, staging sit-ins and organizing voter-registration drives.
It was, as Marsh refers to it, "the struggle," and for the most part, West was not in it. "I was struggling during that time to make a living," West says. "Anybody who's spent 53 years in Richmond has paid his dues just being here."
The two rivals were classmates at Virginia Union during the 1950s. (West says they were friends then; Marsh says he doesn't remember West at all). While Marsh earned his credentials in the movement as an NAACP lawyer, West pursued his professional career, obtaining a doctorate in education from George Washington University.
West says he had little time for politics, although he was active in his neighborhood civic association and attended early meetings of the Crusade for Voters, Richmond's largest black political organization. "Marsh was there on the front lines because the NAACP hired him," West says. "You can rest assured that Mr. Marsh did not fight it (segregation) without a fee attached to it." It is a charge that incenses Marsh, who says "I have committed my life to the civil rights struggle."
Since taking office, West has made little effort to make peace with the pro-Marsh faction. In his first 17 votes on the council, West sided with the four white members against the four other blacks. ("West Bats 0 for 17" read a headline in the Richmond Afro-American newspaper.) With West's support, the whites had the votes to remove Marsh's allies from city committees and boards. Marsh was kicked off the council's housing committee.
Such actions have won praise for West from the city's conservative Main Street business community and from his council allies. "The word has gone out that Roy is a fair man--firm but fair," says council member William J. Leidinger, whom Marsh helped fire as Richmond's city manager. "We're all a lot better off than we were with Henry."
West was able to muster white support for several measures important to the black community, such as a 30 percent minority set-aside on city construction contracts and a 20 percent "target" for purchases of city goods and services from minority businesses. These are, the mayor's supporters say, proof that the whites and blacks on the council can work together.
Yet West's criticisms of city school Superintendent Richard Hunter, who is black, and his attempts to unseat two black members of the school board have touched a raw nerve in the black community.
For years, it has been the city's staunchly conservative daily newspapers, The Times-Dispatch and The News Leader, that have been hardest on the city's 87 percent black school system, while white council members tried to cut educational funding. Many blacks charged that West was acting out of pique at Hunter, who had once demoted him from a high school to a middle school principal.
"The overwhelming feedback I got is that he was acting out of vengeance and retribution rather than in the best interests of the school system," said City Council member Henry W. Richardson. "It translated itself into an attack on the schools . . . I don't think he understands the impact of the intangible implications."
West says that as a principal he knows as well as anybody what is wrong with the schools. He has even questioned the value of crosstown busing for desegregation, near-heresy to many blacks because it was through busing that the city's schools had originally been integrated.
"You don't have to bus black kids any more," West says. "Why take a 5-year-old black kid and bus him across the James River if he's only going to be sitting next to another black kid when he gets there?"
The Marsh-West feud won't be settled until next May, when West is up for reelection on the council and is expected to face a stiff challenge. The new council then will select the city's mayor for another two years.
Meantime, West's outspokenness is beginning to win him grudging respect from some of his earlier critics and, in recent votes, some pro-Marsh council members have begun to side with him. "Being a new mayor, he's made some mistakes . . . but he's developing rapidly," says Dr. William Thornton, a founder of the Crusade.
Perhaps most important, Thornton adds, "I do not share the view that he's paying off any debts to whites. I think the mistakes he's made were entirely on his own."