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Phillip Tutor: Montgomery and Anniston, divided cities

Steven Reed

Mayor-elect Steven Reed takes the stage to make his acceptance speech after a historic election win in Montgomery on Oct. 8. Montgomery, a cradle of the civil rights movement, elected Reed as its first black mayor.

These words came recently from a mayor in Alabama.

“The state of circumstances (in this city) demands that we be deliberate in addressing the development disparity that exists, where one can tell the poor side of town by what it doesn't have versus the affluent side of town by what it does have.” 

Anniston’s mayor, by chance?

“We seek ways to attract more commerce that can strengthen our city, both in new growth areas and in places in need of new investment.”

Sounds like something Anniston’s mayor would say.

There are “people who believe that this city can be much more than where we are right now ... Their community centers, their streets, their retail and safety options are very limited, and they believe that because they aren’t in another part of town that they don’t matter.”

This, too.

“We have to make sure that we restore that opportunity, we restore that hope and that optimism to them in a way that’s very intentional.”

But Jack Draper didn’t say those things. 

Instead, they came from Steven Reed, the 46-year-old judge and son of longtime Alabama legislator Joe Reed who was sworn in Tuesday as the historic first African-American mayor of Montgomery. The Montgomery Advertiser is bloated with Reed comments that any Anniston mayoral candidate could borrow for their campaign, comments that sound as if Montgomery’s mayor was discussing the Model City, not Alabama’s capital city.

Reed has “vowed to prioritize Montgomery's problematic traditional school system,” The Advertiser reported. He’d better, since 11 public schools in Montgomery are considered “failing” by the Alabama Department of Education. 

Montgomery suffers from high rates of violent crime and appalling rates of poverty, especially among its black residents.

Montgomery also is a city divided, levels of prosperity to the east, pockets of abject privation to the west. “East Montgomery has grown by leaps and bounds,” a 94-year-old Montgomery resident, Margaret Bonner, told The Advertiser. “West Montgomery is like the Titanic (has) been through here.”

Ignore the difference in the cities’ populations and the Anniston-Montgomery comparison of mayoral concerns is obvious. Uncanny, even. 

Dissatisfaction with Anniston’s public schools, despite their gradual improvements in state rankings, rest at the heart of this fall’s deannexation movement. Nearly 30 percent of Anniston residents live in poverty. (Montgomery’s rate: 22.1 percent. Let that sink in.) Violent crime rates in certain neighborhoods are astonishingly high. 

And that east-west divide?

On that, Montgomery and Anniston are remarkably similar. Ben Little and David Reddick, the councilmen who represent Anniston’s western neighborhoods, constantly decry what they claim is unequal political and economic-development treatment — a claim couched in old truths and current unfounded hyperbole. And let’s be honest: there is no stronger illustration of Anniston’s east-west divide than deannexation advocates’ initial desire to excise Ward 4 and portions of other east Anniston neighborhoods.

That desire is reprehensible, a greedy and self-serving effort incorrectly advertised as a worthwhile option for a city with definite needs. And don’t miss the larger point. Dissolving Anniston City Schools, not deannexing more than 9,000 residents from the city’s more affluent wards, may be that effort’s ultimate goal.

At Tuesday night’s deannexation public meeting, Anniston City Attorney Bruce Downey put it this way. “The damage to the city of Anniston — even if we prevail (in court) — the damage in some ways would be irreparable,” he said.

The lesson here for Anniston’s mayoral candidates is clear. Plagiarize Reed’s approach and tell Annistonians that you understand why some black residents feel City Hall isn’t their friend, why the Ward 2 and 3 councilmen peddle that theory, and that you want to dissolve the two Annistons — the poor and those with more than enough — into one through honesty and transparency. Little’s and Reddick’s finger-pointing and sermonizing may sell tickets to council meetings, but what does its accomplish? The answer is obvious.

It’s inspiring to hear the mayor of one of Alabama’s largest cities commit to listen to people who “believe that because they aren’t in another part of town that they don’t matter.” A divided Montgomery will remain just that, divided and incomplete. Anniston is no different. 

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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