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Montgomery, Ala., elects its first African American mayor after 200 years

Steven L. Reed speaks at his victory party on Tuesday night in Montgomery, Ala., after he defeated David Woods in the race for mayor. (Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser/AP)

Making history, voters in Montgomery, Ala., decisively elected Steven L. Reed on Tuesday as the first African American mayor in the 200 years since the city’s founding.

Reed, already a trailblazer as Montgomery County’s first black probate judge, defeated David Woods, owner of the local Fox affiliate, in a nonpartisan runoff election with 67 percent of the vote and all precincts reporting, according to the unofficial election results.

“This election has never been about me,” Reed, 45, said during his victory speech. “This election has never about just my ideas. It’s been about all of the hopes and dreams that we have as individuals and collectively in this city … and the way we found the opportunity to improve outcomes regardless of neighborhood, regardless of Zip code, regardless of anything that may divide us or make us different from one another.”

His victory reverberated well beyond Montgomery as many celebrated the milestone in a city remembered as both the cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of the civil rights movement. Montgomery, where about 60 percent of residents are black, was the first capital of the Confederate States of America, becoming a bastion of racial violence and discrimination in the Jim Crow era but also of protests and resistance in the civil rights era.

It’s home to the Montgomery bus boycott against segregation led by Rosa Parks, and it’s home to the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights led by Martin Luther King Jr. It was in Montgomery where, after the third march in March 1965, King addressed a crowd of 25,000 people on the steps of the Alabama Capitol, famously saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“This is a historic day for our nation,” Karen Baynes-Dunning, interim president and chief executive of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is based in Montgomery, said Tuesday on Twitter. “The election of Steven Reed, the first black mayor of Montgomery, AL, symbolizes the new inclusive & forward thinking South that so many have worked to achieve.”

In an op-ed, the Montgomery Advertiser’s editor described Reed’s win as being “for the thousands of civil rights foot soldiers whose names we rarely say but whose legacy lives forever.”

“Do not underestimate what this means to generations of people who fought hard for the man who looks like Reed to hold the city’s highest office,” executive editor Bro Krift wrote. “Do not depreciate what it means to parents of the youth of this city who look like Reed and who now have a man they can hold up as an example.”

Reed, born and raised in Montgomery, worked various jobs in finance and in the Alabama legislature, as an aide to former lieutenant governor Jim Folsom Jr. (D), before turning to local government in Montgomery. Reed became the youngest and first black probate judge in Montgomery County in 2012 ― and the first probate judge in the state to issue same-sex marriage licenses in 2015.

The father of two told the Advertiser earlier this year that he decided to run for mayor after growing dissatisfied with the state of public education and safety, deciding he didn’t need to look to anyone but himself to fix the problems.

“Are you going to sit on the sidelines and complain and throw stuff at the TV about what you could do better or are you going to run to really make a difference?” he told the newspaper.

On Oct. 8, voters in Montgomery, Ala., elected Steven L. Reed to be the city's first African American mayor since its founding 200 years ago. (Video: Reuters)

His rise in politics, in some ways, follows that of his father, himself a political trailblazer and civil rights advocate in Montgomery. Joe L. Reed was elected to the Montgomery City Council in 1975 along with three other African Americans, making them the first black politicians to hold elected office in the city since the Reconstruction era, according to the book “Closed Ranks: The Whitehurst Case in Post-Civil Rights Montgomery.”

The influx of black officeholders that year was largely thanks to Montgomery’s overhaul of its local political system. Before 1975, the mayor and just two at-large commissioners were elected by all residents of Montgomery, rather than having a city council with members belonging to specific districts. Back then, black residents were in the minority, making it difficult for black candidates to win citywide seats, the Advertiser reported.

At the time of Joe Reed’s election, he was already fighting for civil rights. As a student at Alabama State College, he participated in lunch counter sit-ins in 1960, fighting to end segregation in Montgomery. He went on to become a longtime leader in the Alabama Democratic Conference, successfully suing over gerrymandering that diminished the black vote. He served on the city council until 1999 and was known to spar often with Mayor Emory Folmar — described in a 1987 Chicago Tribune dispatch as “the most popular and efficient mayor in Montgomery’s history and reviled as its most racist and divisive.” Announcing his candidacy for reelection that year, he proclaimed race a “dead issue.”

Folmar, the longest-serving Montgomery mayor with a 22-year tenure, initially took office in 1977 in the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of a fleeing, unarmed black man, Bernard Whitehurst, who was mistaken for a robbery suspect — a case that would affect the black community’s relationship with police for years to come. “Rather than take steps to identify and correct the problem, it seems that Folmar’s actions made things worse,” the Journal of the Southern Regional Council observed in 1983.

Since Folmar’s exit from office in 1999, only two other mayors have been elected. The most recent, Mayor Todd Strange, decided not to seek reelection this year after a decade in office. Ten of the 12 candidates running to replace him are black.

Steven Reed’s platform centered on investing in universal prekindergarten, eliminating food deserts and beefing up the Montgomery police force, which most candidates argued was understaffed.

On Tuesday night, Reed did not address his status as the city’s first black mayor but acknowledged its significance hours before the numbers were finally tallied, speaking to the Advertiser.

“I take that with a great deal of humility and a great deal of responsibility, what that means to so many people who have been a part of Montgomery who have lived here and left here because of the racial terror they underwent and moved far, far away,” Reed said. “And what it means to the people who stayed here and continue to chip away and who definitely want to see someone in this position that looks like them. I think I had to kind of take a step back. … It’s way bigger than just Steven Reed.”

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who endorsed Reed for mayor, congratulated him on Twitter “on making history in Montgomery tonight."

“The birthplace of the civil rights movement has a new era of leadership for the first time in its 200-year history,” she wrote. “Montgomery is in good hands.”

Reed was not the only first black mayor elected in Alabama on Tuesday. In Talladega, Ala., a city of about 15,000 and home to a popular NASCAR racetrack, voters also elected their first black mayor, Timothy Ragland. The 28-year-old law clerk defeated the incumbent in a tight race, the Daily Home reported.

Talladega was incorporated in 1835.