Anniston’s new mayor, whoever he is, will resemble nearly all of its 31 previous mayors. He’ll be male and white.
It’s not the fault of Jack Draper and Bob Folsom, voters’ options on Oct. 4. They were, with a little lyrical assistance from Lady Gaga, born this way. Still, I wonder, where is Anniston’s Eddie Lowe?
All stories worth retelling in Alabama are somehow intertwined with football, so let’s start there. Eddie Lowe was born in Columbus, Ga., and played football for Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama. So, too, did his brother, former NFL standout and College Football Hall of Famer Woodrow Lowe. You may have heard of him.
Eddie Lowe didn’t make it to the NFL, but he did play nine seasons in the Canadian Football League. Woodrow played in San Diego. Eddie played in Saskatchewan. Life isn’t always fair.
When football ended, Eddie Lowe returned to the South and worked in banking. He served as the president of the Phenix City Board of Education for 10 years. And in 2012, Phenix City voters made him the first black mayor in the city’s history.
Last month, voters re-elected him in an election that didn’t turn on strict racial lines. Bi-racial Election Day support put Lowe in office, twice.
This month, The New York Times traveled to Phenix City to find out how this east Alabama city of 37,000 people — its population is nearly 50-50, black and white — has embraced governmental diversity during this era of American racial tumult. Some white residents in Phenix City, The Times reported, have voiced fears about a City Hall staffed with a black mayor and a majority-black City Council.
Here, according to The Times, is what Lowe did:
“On Sept. 8, he held a news conference that turned out to be more of a sermon, mixed with an impassioned locker-room speech.
“With an array of black and white residents behind him, Lowe told the story of a child who fell into a gorilla pit at an Illinois zoo, only to be scooped up by one of the gorillas and safely delivered to paramedics. ‘If a gorilla can show compassion to someone who doesn’t look like her, certainly we can show compassion,’ Lowe said. ‘If a gorilla can show love to someone different than her, we can show love.’”
Again, I ask, where is Anniston’s Eddie Lowe?
The color of a person’s skin doesn’t ensure political superiority, and I assume, with some degree of confidence, that either Draper or Folsom will keep the lights on, the bills paid and the trains running on time down on Gurnee Avenue. They’re neither demagogues nor incompetents. And in Anniston, where political theatrics are as common as teenage pimples, that’s a heck of a resume starter.
Hey, elect me!
I’m not crazy!
But Anniston 2016 isn’t Anniston 1966. Fifty-two percent of its population is black. Two of its four wards are represented by African Americans on the City Council. The student population of its public school system is overwhelmingly black. Its school superintendent is black. Depending on next month’s runoff, the five-member Anniston Board of Education may be majority black. And recent hints of racial turmoil — recall the hullaballoo over city funding of Anniston’s schools — cry out for a more diverse City Hall that can sincerely address concerns before they become something much worse.
Modern-day Anniston is primed to follow Phenix City’s path and elect its first black mayor — not now, but soon, I hope. Among the best of America’s elected, democratic governments are those that resemble the people they serve. That is Anniston’s likely future.
Earlier this year, Stephanie Mash Sykes, executive director of the African-American Mayors Association in Washington, D.C., told Al Jazeera America that Barack Obama’s presidency as well as “issues every day [in the news] that are affecting African-Americans … are energizing folks to have people in office that look like them.” Author Janet Stewart, in 2006’s The Star of Black America, wrote that more than 90 percent of the United States’ black mayors govern in small towns of less than 50,000 people. No state had more black mayors than Alabama (32), Stewart wrote. Ominously, “Analysts have found that blacks are still underrepresented in majority-black places, with the greatest level of black underrepresentation persisting in the South.”
The rub, of course, is that one of Anniston’s vexing problems is that few black residents seek the city’s highest office.
I’ll repeat my constant thought about former Councilman Ben Little: it’s shameful that he wastes his strengths on divisive, us-against-them politics. In Anniston, his political reputation is cemented, and he’s no Eddie Lowe. David Reddick, who represents Ward 2, has linked arms with Little in this campaign, which does him no favors. Ward 3 Councilman Seyram Selase is the most mayoral of the city’s current black politicians, but Little’s re-emergence has endangered Selase’s short-term political future.
In Phenix City, Mayor Lowe has largely nullified the worst parts of racial politics. Whites voted for him, blacks voted for him. He’s the mayor, not the black mayor. That’s a model to emulate.