By: Richard Arrington
Reviewed by: Edward Reynolds
The University of Alabama Press, 2008
Former Birmingham mayor Richard Arrington has written his recollections and impressions of his two decades running the state’s largest city in his autobiography There’s Hope for the World: The Memoir of Birmingham, Alabama’s First African American Mayor. Arrington’s 1979 election marked a profound change following decades of white rule that was eventually dismantled with the city’s conversion from a city commission style government run by racist thug Bull Connor to a mayor-council operation in the early 1960s that began to recognize black residents in a more equal light, though it took another decade for profound changes to take root.
Headline stories from 1979 to 1999 anchor the book. The memoir is a fascinating stroll down memory lane that will probably be appreciated more by those who lived in Birmingham when Arrington was mayor.
Unfortunately for long-time Birmingham residents, Arrington makes a slight error in the opening pages. While sharing childhood memories of the “colored waiting room” at Birmingham’s elegant Terminal Station, he describes in depth the nearby “Birmingham” sign and its history before concluding: “Both the sign and the station are long gone; both were demolished in the early 1950s.” Actually, the Terminal Station was razed in the late 1960s.
Readers will no doubt chuckle when they learn Arrington’s assessment of one of his 1979 opponents for the mayor’s job—local Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, Don Black. Arrington writes of Black: “A rather handsome, darkhaired, well-dressed young man who spoke well, he didn’t fit my stereotype of a Klansman.” According to Arrington, two other mayoral opponents, incumbent mayor David Vann and former Birmingham city councilor and county commissioner John Katapodis—both progressive, moderates on racial issues—each “tried to subtly suggest that the election of a black as mayor would probably result in higher crime rates,” with Mayor Vann buying newspaper ads that referenced Atlanta and New Orleans as cities with black mayors and high incidents of crime.
Arrington, however, admits practicing his own brand of “race politics” when he later lost a fight to sell the city’s water system—which also is much of the state’s water source—in a public referendum. It was the first Arrington defeat by a substantial number of African-American voters. He reflects: “If I had any doubt about it being time for me to leave the mayor’s office, it was swept away by the referendum’s results. Not only had I failed to deliver for the schools, I had lost the hold on the majority of the city’s black voters…. My brand of race politics, adopted after successful campaigns for mayor in 1979, 1983, and 1987, was swept down the drain.”
Oddly, black racial politics would eventually backfire on Arrington. He writes of his efforts to hire a sculptor to create a piece for Kelly Ingram Park across from the city’s Civil Rights Institute. He chose a design depicting three African-American ministers kneeling after Bull Connor had stopped a rally in the park in the 1960s. However, a pair of local black ministers who had been high-profile veterans of the civil rights struggle objected that two of the preachers in Arrington’s choice of sculpture designs were not prominent enough for such a memorial. The ministers threatened to march on the city in protest until Arrington had the offending faces on the sculpture changed. “After enduring the hostility of much of the white community over the project, I was now faced with threats of protests over the statue from civil rights leaders,” Arrington writes with weary resignation.
Arrington also writes about his seemingly perpetual fight with the federal government as it investigated corruption at City Hall during his years as mayor. From his FBI files, Arrington learned that he had first been placed on an FBI watchlist that included 1,600 black leaders nationwide in 1972 after he was first elected to the Birmingham City Council.
There’s Hope for the World is a fascinating history lesson of one African-American man’s struggle for acceptance and respect in a changing world. It’s the kind of lesson that must be taught to future generations, and thankfully, Birmingham’s first black mayor has finally penned his contribution. March 2009
Edward Reynolds is a writer living in Birmingham.