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An Urgent Opportunity to Make Political History — and Chart a New Future — in Montgomery, Alabama

Steven Reed
News & Analysis

This post originally appeared on Medium.

The voters of Montgomery, Ala. have an opportunity to create history, and chart a new future, by electing Probate Judge Steven Reed as the first African American mayor in the city’s 200-year history. Reed is one of two candidates in an October 8 runoff election, and he is running hard to overcome a tendency for turnout to drop in runoff elections, which has been a challenge for progressive and black candidates in the south.

Reed’s campaign could be historic, but he is rightly focused more on the future than on the past. He has built a broad coalition around his pledge to work for a city that provides opportunity to everyone, including those who have been left behind, looked over, and left out.

But this is Montgomery, and there’s no avoiding the historic shift his election would represent. Before the Civil War, Montgomery was a center of the domestic slave trade. It was the exact birthplace and first capital of the Confederacy. It was the site of George Wallace’s “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” speech. And it was a hub of violent resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, the site of a brutal attack on the Freedom Riders.

Montgomery is also where the Civil Rights Movement built momentum, where Rosa Parks made her stand, where the African American community sustained for more than a year a boycott of the city’s segregated bus system, and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as a national leader.

Today, Montgomery is primed to lead the nation toward an honest reckoning with its racial past as a necessary step toward reconciliation. Joining the city’s traditional civil rights sites in recent years are the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which unblinkingly commemorates more than 4,000 African American victims of lynching.

These truth-telling sites were created by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative and its leader Bryan Stevenson, who as a lawyer and activist has advocated for redemption. “I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America,” Stevenson told the New York Times. “I want to liberate America.” Indeed, Alabama’s Tourism Department now promotes the National Memorial for Peace and Justice as part of the state’s civil rights legacy. That’s a big change from the city I recall from my first visit in the 1970s, when its most famous resident was George Wallace.

Steven Reed has already played a part in creating a new Montgomery, the city in which he was born and raised. In 2012, Reed was the youngest person and first black person to be elected as probate judge. In 2018 he ran unopposed for re-election. In office, he fought hard to make voting accessible and reliable and to protect the integrity of elections. He has worked to keep people out of jail by helping to improve access to mental health services.

And when the notorious former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore defied the federal courts, Reed stood up for the rule of law — and for the core constitutional principle of equality — by being the first probate judge in the state to say he would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The hostile reaction from some quarters to The New York Times’ 1619 project — an in-depth exploration of the continuing effects of the slave trade that first made it to the shores of the U.S. 400 years ago — indicates that some people are still not willing to reckon honestly with our history. In contrast, Reed is aware of that history, and is committed to building a future of fairness, equity, and opportunity for all.

Reed says this election is an opportunity to write a new narrative for Montgomery’s next 50 years. He is part of a solution-oriented wave of leaders who are changing their communities by bringing their vision and energy into public service.

People For the American Way is proud to support committed and creative young people as they step up to the challenges facing their communities and their generation. And we are proud to endorse and support Steven Reed, whose accomplishments as a public servant can give Montgomery voters confidence that they will be well served with Reed as mayor.