TALLADEGA -- The City Council paid tribute to a trailblazer Monday evening, unveiling a portrait of former Councilman John L. Taylor, which will be permanently displayed in the council chamber at City Hall. Taylor was the first African-American to serve on the Talladega City Council, serving two terms, from 1975 to 1983.
Mayor Larry Barton, who served with Taylor from 1979 to 1983, said the honor was “long overdue …I remember Councilman Taylor, and how we worked together. I had the privilege of serving as the West Side Board Chairman that helped convert West Side High School into the B.N. Mabra Center. Then when I became mayor, I was succeeded by (current Councilman) Horace Patterson. I knew him in my banking days, too, back in the 1960s, as a customer. I knew him as a man of honesty and integrity, and once he was committed to something, he stood by it. He studied the issue and made a decision.”
Barton then read from an editorial in an old copy of The Daily Home saying Taylor “won a seat on the council because he was an individual on whom people felt they could depend.”
Barton introduced Taylor’s family and presented them several photos and newspaper clippings from Taylor’s tenure as a councilman.
Patterson said, “I arrived in Talladega in 1974, expecting to stay from six months to three years at the most. Many people impressed me, but he was very perceptive, very bright and he could pick up on things. He did not simply hear, but he could interpret, and that is a rare gift. The Mabra Center is a classic illustration of that, and of something else, too: he didn’t care who got credit.”
Patterson also read a testimonial from Nancy Cotter, who worked with Taylor at the Talladega County Board of Education, where he worked for 30 years and “assisted in helping the children accomplish more.”
Patterson concluded by “joining the mayor in thanks, because good things don’t just happen. (Taylor) cut a trail, and it is an honor for me to honor him. ... He understood how to be great, because he had a heart and the ability to lift and motivate people.”
Councilman Jarvis Elston said it was “an honor to be present, to join in” the tribute to Taylor, and Councilman Joe Ballow said he wished he had known the man. Council President Donnie Miller said he was a child when Taylor served on the council, but he could remember receiving his diploma from him.
Taylor came to city government in Talladega during a period of transition.
According to longtime Talladega resident Robert Weaver, up until the early 1970’s the city was governed by a city commission form of government. Three candidates were elected at large, with the mayor serving at the pleasure of the other two candidates. “Dr. Hardwick was the mayor,” Weaver said.
The city commission form of government remained popular for many years in Alabama, but by the last half of the 1960s, things were beginning to change. The Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, and Birmingham switched over to a mayor/council form of government, with the council elected at large.
“We thought Talladega should have that, too,” Weaver said. “The Birmingham law was very thick, and it called for 11 at-large councilmen. That wouldn’t work in Talladega, so we decided to go with five. But it took a while to get that through the legislature, because the people at City Hall had a lot more clout than we did.”
The first vote on the new form of government was a failure, but it passed the second time around, and Talladegans elected their first council in 1971.
In this first election, Frank Curry made a respectable showing, but did not place in the top five, so the initial council was entirely white. Johnny McKinney became the city’s first strong mayor.
One of the provisions of the law leading up to the 1971 elections stated that, at the end of their first term, the council would select the form of elections for subsequent city governments. At-large elections were not an option, Weaver said.
Weaver added that the U.S. Justice Department, which has to preapprove changes to voting laws in areas with a history of civil rights violations, recommended the city stick with the at-large elections, but allow for “one-shot” voting, or vote stacking. Instead of voting for five candidates, a voter may give as many as five votes to one candidate.
“The Legislative Reference Service at first didn’t know how to word the law,” he continued. “The law was only for Talladega, but there’s something in the state constitution that said you couldn’t have voting laws for only one city. So it had to be written saying ‘any city that votes to abandon one form of government,’ which is what we ended up doing.”
The new law went into effect in time for the 1975 election. Taylor first made it into the runoff round, and was eventually seated as the city’s first black councilman.
McKinney had been forced to resign in the middle of his term and was replaced in the mayor’s office by Council President Norman C. Woods. Woods sought a full term in 1975, but was defeated by Charles Osborne.
Taylor was re-elected in 1979, and Osborne was defeated by Barton.
Taylor lost a bid for a third term on the council, but continued to serve as a member of the Talladega Water and Sewer Board and the city Planning Commission until he died in 1985.
The ward system, which more or less remains in place today, was approved in the late 1980s.