Are Jackson Taxpayers Willing To Pay More To Slow Development? Vote Set For November


One by one, medical professionals and Montgomery residents approach the microphone and testify about the need for masks. More than 90 percent of the people in the intensive-care unit at the city’s largest hospital are Black. For the most at-risk groups, one man says, mask wearing is not a symbolic political issue but a matter of life and death. He tugs at his mask and fiddles with his shirt. He’s lost six relatives to the virus. His brother is in the hospital dying. “The question on the table,” he says, “is: Do Black lives matter?”

Since the death of George Floyd, the whole country has been confronting that question. But for Reed and his peers—the wave of Black Democratic mayors who have swept into southern city halls in the decade since Steve Benjamin became the first Black mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, in 2010—the question has particular political urgency. Those mayors—Keisha Lance Bottoms in Atlanta; Frank Scott Jr. in Little Rock, Arkansas; Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Alabama; Vi Lyles in Charlotte, North Carolina; Chokwe Antar Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi; Reed in Montgomery; and others—represent cities with large, and in some cases predominantly, Black populations. The symbolic progress these politicians embody is expressed in a collection of firsts: first Black mayor of one city, first Black woman mayor of another, youngest mayor of a third. But as they lead their cities through a national reckoning with systemic racism—amid a pandemic that has exacerbated lethal inequities—symbolism alone won’t do. Navigating through overlapping crises—and advancing the rights and living standards of their constituents—requires the full application of symbolic power combined with the canny use of the policy levers they hold as elected officials. These two sources of power are different; leaning on one can sometimes hinder the use of the other, and getting the balance right is difficult.

When Reed, who is 46, broke two centuries of racial precedent to become Montgomery’s first Black mayor, in 2019, thousands of the city’s residents exhaled. For most of Montgomery’s 200-year history, Reed told me, the plight of the city’s Black people—who make up roughly 60 percent of the population there—has been overlooked. The same was true in any number of cities across the South and beyond. Left unaddressed, dissatisfaction only brews. As Reed stands before the council, he’s talking about masks—but, more fundamentally, what he’s saying is that the Black people in his city are being heard.

After more than an hour of testimony, the council votes. With one member absent, it splits down the middle. Four members—three Black, one white—support the measure. Four members—all white—vote against it. The majority of the white council members can’t be convinced that masks are necessary. One Black member proposes a watered-down measure—a recommendation instead of a requirement—reasoning that it’s better to do something instead of nothing. Another Black member wonders aloud why the council seems unwilling to take decisive action on something as simple as wearing masks.

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