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Montgomery, Ala., Was a Hub of the Slave Trade and a Center of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s About to Swear in Its First Black Mayor

11 minute read

Hanging on the wall in Steven L. Reed’s old office as Montgomery County’s probate judge was a photo of his father, Joseph L. Reed, sitting next to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. at Maggie Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., in 1967.

The two men are not merely sitting together by accident. They met in 1960, around the time the elder Reed was at Alabama State University and was put on probation for participating in a Feb. 25, 1960, sit-in at the Montgomery County Courthouse’s segregated restaurant. They kept up in touch as Reed went on to become president of Alabama State Teachers Association, an African-American teachers organization that merged with its all-white counterpart in 1969.

So Steven L. Reed is well acquainted with Montgomery’s civil rights history. And on Tuesday, 50 years after his father was involved in that step toward desegregation, Reed will be sworn in as the first African-American mayor in the predominantly African-American city’s 200-year history. Reed beat David Woods, a white TV-station owner, by carrying 67% of the vote on Oct. 8, according to preliminary election results.

“To see things come to where they are right now, when you think of what took place in this country — from the first enslaved Africans being brought here [to Virginia] in 1619, to this city being founded in 1819, to the city electing its first black mayor in 2019 — the significance of it is also found in the possibilities that we are now afforded,” Reed tells TIME, “and the hope it has given people that we will progress to a New South.”

AL: City runoff election for Mayor
Mayoral candidate Steven Reed talks with his team at Southlawn Elementary School in Montgomery, Ala., on Oct. 8.Jake Crandall—Montgomery Advertiser/ImagnUSA TODAY/Sipa

City of extremes

The historical significance of Reed’s win can be seen within about a 10-minute walk of his new office in City Hall.

The city was christened Montgomery in 1819, in honor of Revolutionary War General Richard Montgomery, and became Alabama’s capital in 1846. With access to steamboats and railroads, as well as proximity to fertile agricultural regions, it soon became a key transport hub through which bales of cotton were shipped on their way south to Mobile and then on to mills overseas. It was thus also a nexus for the transport of human cargo, and one of the biggest slave-trading hubs in the antebellum United States.

By 1859, there were as many slave depots in Montgomery as there were hotels and banks. Kidnapped men and women were marched up Commerce Street in chains to the slave auction house or one of the four slave depots — all within a few blocks of Reed’s new office in City Hall. At the beginning of the Civil War, the city’s slave population was larger than those of major ports New Orleans and Natchez, Miss.

Reed’s new office is also near an important landmark in the origins of the conflict: the state capitol building at which Alabama voted to secede from the Union on Jan. 11, 1861, and where representatives of other slave-holding states voted to form the Confederate States of America a few weeks later. Its President, Jefferson Davis, lived in Montgomery in what’s known as the First White House of the Confederacy until Richmond, Va., became the Confederate capital in May.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, during Reconstruction, as federal oversight led to a brief period of expanding political rights for the black population of the Deep South, Alabama boasted one of the highest numbers of black officeholders in the region. By the end of that period in 1877, about 2,000 black men had held some official position in former Confederate states, according to historian Eric Foner, but those gains were all but erased during the Jim Crow era, when state and local laws enforced racial segregation, backed by intimidation and violence.

And yet, a century later, the city that had once played a central role in the history of American slavery would play a central role in the fight for racial equality nationwide.

One block down from City Hall is the spot where Rosa Parks boarded the bus after work on Dec. 1, 1955, and was arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger—thus launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Martin Luther King Jr., which over the next year kicked off a new phase of civil rights activism. King served as a pastor at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church between 1954 and 1960, during which time his home was bombed twice.

Just another couple of blocks south from the bus stop is the courthouse where, later in 1956, federal judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional. It was Judge Johnson who also allowed the march for voting rights from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery to continue in March of 1965, which catalyzed the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

On the same block as his courthouse is the Freedom Rides Museum, at the site of the Montgomery Greyhound Bus station where, on May 20, 1961, a white Ku Klux Klan mob attacked about 20 Freedom Riders — including future Congressman John Lewis — who were protesting segregation on interstate buses and terminals. Those attacks helped open the Kennedy Administration‘s eyes to violence in the South, and federal reinforcements were called in. In 2013, Montgomery’s police chief apologized to Lewis for the force having not protected the Freedom Riders.

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Steven Reed
Montgomery Mayor-elect Steven Reed speaks at his victory party on Oct. 8.Mickey Welsh—AP

‘How they got through this’

Reed’s connection to the city’s past is personal. He was born in Montgomery in 1974, which meant he grew up when the civil rights veterans were still alive. The war stories he heard from them at community events were still fresh in their minds. His father served as one of the city’s first black councilmen and then as the longtime leader of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the state’s oldest African-American political organization, and worked to get more black politicians elected.

Coretta Scott King, an Alabama native, would stay at the Reeds’ house when she came to visit friends and family there. He remembers his family and Coretta driving around the city to see their old haunts, and recalls begging his mother to let him invite her to talk at his school. When it came time to choose a college, he picked Morehouse, a historically black college in Atlanta, in large part because it is the alma mater of two of his role models, Martin Luther King Jr. and Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta. (Reed jokes that his father told him and his brother, “If Morehouse is good enough for Dr. King, it’s good enough for y’all.”)

But it wasn’t until 2007 that he decided to try to turn that connection into a career.

That year, a freshman Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, spoke at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala., and noted that the church had been a key location for planning the famous 1965 march to Montgomery. Obama had declared his candidacy for President one month earlier, and said he worried that young people were taking for granted the sacrifices of civil rights leaders.

“There’s nothing wrong with making money, but if you know your history, then you know that there is a certain poverty of ambition involved in simply striving just for money,” he told the audience. “Materialism alone will not fulfill the possibilities of your existence. You have to fill that with something else. You have to fill it with the golden rule. You’ve got to fill it with thinking about others. And if we know our history, then we will understand that that is the highest mark of service.”

At the time, Reed — who had gotten a M.B.A. from Vanderbilt and spent much of his career in the corporate world — was the owner of a Roly Poly Sandwiches shop in Montgomery. But Obama’s statement struck a chord with him.

“I saw myself as someone who wanted to make a difference as a businessman and entrepreneur, creating jobs and leading companies in creating a better economy through job creation. That line hit me square in the eyes,” he says. “Maybe I need to quit looking at things from the financial side and looking at things from the service side.”

Five years later, he was elected Montgomery County’s first African-American and youngest probate judge in 2012. Three years later, he made national headlines after he ignored Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy S. Moore’s argument that a federal rule striking down the state’s same-sex marriage ban didn’t apply to probate judges; Reed continued issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He said he was going to be “on the right side of history” and called Moore’s state’s-rights arguments “dog whistles” and segregationist throwbacks. The U.S. Supreme Court would validate his decision four months later, when it struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage.

He declared his candidacy for mayor in February of 2019.

“When you’re able to talk to people who were there for the Selma-Montgomery march, [and] people who played significant roles in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, you also understand the unification that was needed then and is still needed now in this country,” Reed says. “That’s how they got through this, and that’s what we had in this campaign too.”

Past and present

Reed now joins a wave of African-American leadership in America’s cities. Though black mayors are likely to be found in small southeastern cities, earlier this year, Chicago’s election of Lori Lightfoot meant it became the largest American city to elect an African-American woman as mayor. And on Nov. 5 London Breed was re-elected as San Francisco’s first African-American female mayor. As of Oct. 22, of the 310 U.S. cities with populations over 100,000, 34 were led by African-American mayors; a little more than 400 black mayors were leading smaller cities as of summer 2018, per the African American Mayors Association’s last count.

Many of these leaders are running for office because of what they see as “an urgency to address issues that are still lagging for African-American community since the 2008 housing crisis,” says Stephanie Mash Sykes, the organization’s Executive Director and General Counsel. “We’re seeing that localities have to pick up that mantle when Washington isn’t passing that legislation.”

To her, Montgomery’s election of Reed is an important milestone. “In 2019, we still have ‘first black mayors’ of cities that are majority African-American, so there’s a little bit of irony there,” she says. “Having a mayor of a city we know was so important to the civil rights movement shows a sign of progress and hopefulness that’s really important to the next generation of civil rights leaders.”

Reed feels that weight of history, but he’s also cautious about the way it’s framed. That balance is evident in his admiration of Maynard Jackson’s leadership in Atlanta: Reed looks up to him for the way he transformed the Georgia capital into an international hub, created economic opportunities for African-American businesses, helped bring the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta and transformed it into one of the most progressive cities in the South. In Montgomery, Reed hopes to honor the past while similarly looking toward the future.

“People tend to think of Montgomery and parts of the South as being a place that is still in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” he says. “We’ve been at an origination standpoint, and now we want to be a destination, a place that people come to finish things.” He wants investors to see Montgomery as “a place that has certainly great historical value and also great potential for the future.”

Efforts to acknowledge the city’s past have already been paying off, literally. April of 2018 saw the opening of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to lynching victims and victims of white supremacy, and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, on the site of a former warehouse in Montgomery where slaves were held. The city saw about 400,000 more visitors and 100,000 more hotel rooms booked in 2018, compared to the year prior, and multi-million-dollar real estate developments are in the works, according to city data reported by the New York Times.

“We want to make sure that we’re a city that’s not just a museum for the rest of the country,” Reed says. “We want to certainly acknowledge the past. It is not enough if we are just commemorating things that have happened in the past. We have to invest in the future of the citizens who live here now so we can be a part of the New South.”

With the increased public exposure that followed his election, Reed knows that the plaudits he’s getting for being first will only go so far. History will judge him on what he accomplishes in office.

“The significance will be measured over time,” he says. “Can we [be the] city that we want to be, as opposed to a city that we have been?”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com