This city is seething with questions arising out of the recent election by its city council of Roy West to succeed Henry L. Marsh III as mayor. Most of the blacks and even some whites are asking such questions as: why would West, a newly elected council member, align himself with four white members to oust a veteran black mayor, particularly since Marsh had done such an outstanding job?
One of West's prominent supporters and principal advisers is L. Douglas Wilder, a black state senator. West has made conflicting statements as to whether Wilder advised him to accept the position of mayor or merely failed to advise him one way or the other. But regardless of what advice he did or did not give to West, a lot of black Richmonders want to know why Wilder did not support Marsh, particularly considering the respective qualifications of the two men.
For nearly a quarter of a century, Marsh has devoted his time and talent unstintingly to landmark civil rights cases in the areas of education, employment and voting rights. He has served tirelessly on the city council for 16 years. He is one of the founders and architects of Richmond Renaissance--a project in which the council and private business will pool resources to revitalize the city, with special emphasis on the economic conditions of blacks. By virtue of his office, the mayor is president of this corporation.
Additionally, Marsh has served on the board of directors of the National League of Cities, and as president of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials. At the time of his replacement by West, Marsh was serving as chairman of a key committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He also is a leader in the Democratic Party on city, state and national levels.
If West intended to be a bridge between two factions of the council, why, on his first two votes as a member, did he deliberately create a situation that led to a 5-to-4 confrontation on the votes for mayor and vice mayor respectively, with him siding with the white faction? If West ever had any real intention of being a bridge between two factions--as he has been talking about--he would have reached a decision well before July 1 as to whether or not he was going to permit himself to be elected mayor; and he would have talked to the respective factions in an effort to work out some compromises. At least that would have entitled him to the respect of both factions.
Another incident occurred at the first meeting of the new council, during which West demonstrated total contempt for the black members. The agenda called for the election of a council member to serve on the planning commission--a very important position. But instead of proceeding with the election, asking for common consent, or for a vote to postpone the election, this new leader of democratic harmony arbitrarily and dictatorially adjourned the meeting without consulting any of the black council members.
From the beginning of his campaign and ever since the election, West has asserted that the black council members originated and have maintained racial tensions at council meetings. But the real problem has been the studied and deliberate refusal of a segment of the white business community to accept the fact that blacks should exercise some power. A chasm exists because the white faction and its boosters want one to exist, and it will continue as long as the black members try to exercise political power.
That is one of the things that makes West's acceptance of the power play by his white carry-me-back-to-the-pre- ward-days supporters so tragic. It serves to strengthen their resolve to keep blacks "in their place."
Before July 1, Richmond stood as a splendid example of how blacks, through unity, could use the political process to improve the atmosphere of a city. In a single day, Roy West destroyed what took many years to build.
Our best hope is that the outrage and reaction to this act of betrayal will serve as a rallying point for blacks and will result in a new unity--strong enough to generate greater efforts for a better, more equitable society.