July 2, 2012
There’s Hope for the World: the Memoir of Birmingham, Alabama’s First African American Mayor
Richard Arrington Jr. was born October 19th, 1934 in Livingston, Alabama. When his father was offered a job at U.S. Steel, the Arrington family moved to Birmingham and settled in a community near Miles College. Arrington attended Fairfield High School and earned his way through Miles College by working in a dry-cleaning business before going on to earn advanced degrees in biology and zoology at the University of Detroit and the University of Oklahoma. Upon his return to Alabama, Arrington seemed destined for an academic or scientific career, teaching at Miles College and serving there as Academic Dean before becoming director of the Alabama Center for Higher Education and holding the rank of associate professor of biology at University of Alabama in Birmingham. However, Arrington’s career took a turn for the politics when he ran for a city council position, where he served from 1971 to 1979 before setting his sights on the mayoral election of 1979. Arrington won the election and was inaugurated in 1980, becoming the first African-American mayor of what Dr. Martin Luther King once designated “the most segregated city in America.” He went on to be re-elected to five terms, leaving office on the 16th of July, 1999, shortly before the end of his fifth term.
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Richard Arrington holds a Ph.D. in zoology and biochemistry and did postdoctoral work in higher education administration at Harvard University and the University of Michigan. During his two decades as Birmingham’s mayor, he served on dozens of community service boards and the Executive Committee of the Alabama Democratic Party and chair of the National Democratic Party’s Platform Committee for the 1980 Convention. Richard Arrington’s view of his years on the Birmingham City Council, as well as his 20 years as Mayor of the largest city in Alabama (Birmingham), is powerful and informative and will contextualize the importance of having moral leadership in positions of high exposure.
On a sultry September morning in 1955, a young African American man, the son of share croppers, boarded a Greyhound bus in Birmingham, Alabama, to leave his home state for the first time in his life. He was headed for the University of Detroit on a teaching scholarship from Miles College. Richard Arrington could not have guessed then that his future as a teacher would be postponed for decades by big-city politics–and that he would serve a record-setting five terms as executive chief of Alabama’s largest city. Under Arrington’s leadership, Birmingham rebuilt itself from a foundering, steel-driven industrial center to one of the most diversified metropolitan areas in the Southeast, with an economy fueled by health care, biomedical research, engineering, telecommunications, and banking. As mayor, Arrington’s economic legacy is impressive. When he left office, Birmingham boasted a record number of jobs and the lowest unemployment rate in its history. Additionally, Birmingham had built the strongest tax base in Alabama, expanded its city limits by 60 square miles, reduced crime to its lowest level in 25 years, and funded a $260 million school construction program. Today Birmingham is financially sound and is the only city in the Southeast with a $100 million endowment fund.
Mayor Richard Arrington chose to resign 2 years early from his position. He emphasizes how emotional his last day in office affected him all day. He spoke how he and William Bell had an agreement on Bell taking office early as the interim, hoping it will help his chances of being elected to the position. Arrington’s decision to leave the mayor’s office before his fifth term ended had been made two years early. Bell was a highly respected man. Even though he wanted the position of mayor very badly, he would always reiterate that he would never run against Arrington. His respect and loyalty towards Arrington would always come first.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in an exceedingly effective way. King used his intelligence, virtue, and honesty to write an appropriate reply to the criticism he received. He also used logic and emotional appeal. In the first paragraph King says, “… Since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely ...
Running for city council came first along his journey. On November 1971, Arrington became the second black on the Birmingham City Council, joining distinguished civil rights attorney Arthur Shores. Birmingham’s black community had mixed reactions to my election to the City Council. Most blacks in general seemed pleased, while many younger blacks believed that Arrington would not be an effective, militant voice for blacks’ concerns. Early in his first term on city council he undertook special efforts to focus on the areas of transportation and communication and also minority hiring. After making changes in during his terms on city council, the time for as mayor had come. On August 22 on the Steps of Trinity Baptist Church Arrington declared his candidacy for mayor and promised a victory. By the deadline for filing for candidacy in the mayors’ race, three blacks and four whites had filed. Fund-raising for his campaign was extremely tough. Many contributors helped as much as possible. During a conference Arrington had been told by several Birmingham News reporters that the editorial staff of the paper had agreed to endorse him. Arrington campaign workers began arriving at the ballroom of the Holiday Inn on 20th Street on Birmingham’s Southside shortly after the polls closed.
Up on the eleventh floor suite of the hotel he waited with family members and members of the campaign staff. Just minutes later, the final unofficial vote tally came on the television. It showed Arrington leading with 52%. Immediately cheers, hugs, and shouting broke out in the suite. Downstairs in the crowded ballroom the crowd exploded with joy. A phone call came thru at 9:15pm, on the other end it was the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, calling to congratulate him on the election victory. Carter stated that his election was a great day for Birmingham and the nation. His induction and inauguration ceremony was held at 10:00 am Nov. 13, 1979, at the cities old municipal auditorium, which was named in honor of its first mayor under the mayor-council government, Albert Boutwell.
How far do sources 11 and 12 challenge the view presented in source 10 about the conduct of the police on Black Friday? Emily Davison was a woman who fought for woman’s suffrage in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She died on the 8th of June, 1913 after she ran in front of King George V’s horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913. Some people believe that this event caused a major ...
The theme of his inaugural address was best captured by a phrase he used near the end of the address: “I know where we are, I know we’ve come from, and I know where we yet have to go as a city”. During the mist of this celebration, danger had welcomed itself. On November 2, 1979, a young white woman in Cincinnati, Ohio, had called the FBI and informed them of a phone conversation she had with her father, a suburban Birmingham resident, a day earlier. The caller reportedly said that he and several of his Klan members had been approached and offered money to assassinate Arrington. The FBI later found the local Klansman, who verified the alleged offer, which he said rejected. For the next ninety days the Tactile Unit provided around the clock protection. One other serious threat was made upon Arrington’s life during his first year of mayor. He accompanied in several raids on illegal whiskey houses in the city. As a result, several local house operators put up $10,000 and hired a New York City hit man to kill him. With the exception on that threat, he only had two other threats on his life during the remainder twenty years as mayor. Arrington was thankful to not have to worry about such threats too often, his days and nights as mayor were filled with trying to reshape the city and preside over it during some major transitions.
One part of the major transition was concerning the police reform. First, Birmingham is intentionally known for its oppressive police department led by its infamous racist police commissioner. Second, Birmingham police department has a small minority of black officers. This was viewed by blacks as a symbol of racial oppression and division. If the city was to progress socially and economically the negative perception by blacks and much of the nation would change. The most effective way to deal with this long standing problem was to use his position as a council member to document police abuse of citizens and to focus public attention on it. He made it his duty to make sure he employed a lot of blacks in the police force. Arrington made sure that Birmingham had the most diverse working force. It was his goal to make sure there was not going to be a lot of police brutality. A new police shooting policy which prevented police officers from using deadly force unless they were being attacked or the life of another was in jeopardy. The use of deadly force and shooting of victims under the most questionable circumstances never promoted disciplinary action against the officers involved. Disciplinary actions for police who repeatedly abused citizens were rare but still happening, despite all the publicity and documents. Race was the case in the murder by Birmingham police of a young black woman named Bonita Carter.
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When Arrington entered office in 1979 Birmingham was in the midst of economic stagnation. The steel industry, which had served Birmingham well for nearly a century, had fallen upon hard times and the number of jobs in the steel industry had declined. Arrington believed that he could correct how the police force was run by diversifying the police force. Richard wanted to place women as well as African American men in high ranked positions throughout the city. When making decisions like this Arrington received a lot of hate threats from people who wanted him dead. Arrington made it a mission to shut down a lot of illegal operations throughout Birmingham these illegal spots were called “shot” houses.
Arthur Dentoch, who preferred to be called Artie, began his service as Birmingham Chief on January 2, 1982. The controversy surroundings Deutosh’s tenure as police chief would nearly overshadow the selection process. Arrington’s eight year history on the City Council as a vocal critic police misconduct made him the FOP’s number one enemy. For the 1st month or two after he took office, Chief Bill Myers had assigned the department highly trained SWAT team to provide security for him because of the large number of death threats. Arrington received warnings from the FBI that he was in danger of being harmed. So for twenty-four hours a day members of a special police team was always with him.
It was late in my second term as mayor which would be about 1985 when someone mentioned to me that federal investigators were quietly probing the operations of my administration. The rumors of corruption in Arrington’s administration brought about a lot of controversy. Even though all rumors were false, the federal investigation would not rest.
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Growing up for Arrington was somewhat rough. He had no black political role models in Birmingham. During 1983 President Reagan was in office and making moves. President Reagan was for less government, which made him a popular president. One down side to Reagan’s Revolution was his popularity in the black America remained low. He was viewed by blacks as anti-civil rights. This first of Arrington’s positions was on affirmative action. In 1981 the Justice Department took the initiative in recommending the settlement of several lawsuits filed in federal court alleging that Birmingham and neighboring cities practiced racial discrimination against blacks and women in their hiring and promotion procedures.
By May 1985, following the FBI files U.S Attorney Frank Donaldson, took initiate FBI entrapment activities targeting him to determine whether he was corrupt. Three Months later Donaldson the local IRS office and FBI agents launched in an effort of extensive sitting the operations. To entrap me into violations some law or to show that I was predisposed to commit a crime. Their plan was so preposterous that I asked them to go out and get written options to purchase the properties in questions and bring them back to me along with some architectural plan. Sure enough month later they were back with alleged written options and member of local architectural firm. They were getting nowhere but they didn’t stop trying.
The spotlight stayed on Richard as the feds began to designate him as a target of the grand jury investigation. Each complaint that was made to the US attorney was made public. The investigation on Arrington received a lot of negative press since everything was made public which then shed a negative light on the city of Birmingham. With the upcoming 1991 mayoral election approaching Donaldson and Barnett began to make big moves to bring Arrington down and out of office. The tension between the U.S attorney’s office and the city was so stretched to the breaking point, with each publicly charging the other with misconduct. On October 8, 1991, Richard Arrington was reelected mayor for a fourth term with 63 percent of the voters stating that Donaldson and Barnett were trying to sabotage my reelection. Richard Arrington made an attempt to contact Donaldson about the incident that had taken place in the court room. Arrington explained how Barnett tried to steal documents and then supreme to US marshals to detain Thomas and Gillis and seize the documents. After telling Donaldson this information Arrington set up a time and date to meet with Donaldson but this meeting never took place. After a long trial Arrington decided to surrender his self to the US Marshalls and within an hour was placed in a van headed to Maxwell federal prison. Richard spent one night in prison and then was released the following day. On January 25, 1992 Donaldson announced publicly that he had tried to contact my attorneys to reach a deal before Arrington had to go to prison but in all truth none of that took place. Many people believed that Arrington going to prison was a publicity stunt.
Since every person is unique they tend to live in different places depending on their taste. Some people prefer to live in big cities while some prefer countries. The bustling city is alive. The stimulation of crowds and traffic generate energy that challenges the human spirit. Perhaps that is why the city dweller reflects the image of an angry, stressed and unfriendly person. Even in Mongolia ...
On November 15, 1992 Birmingham Civil Rights Institute held its grand opening. The idea was born and belongs to David Vann. In the mid 1970s Vann began to share with the city council his idea that Birmingham should have a civil rights institute to tell the story of Birmingham’s perseverance and triumph over racial bigotry. His idea was not a surprise to those around him who know that he is a big radical for changing Birmingham. He was so lost with the thinking Birmingham’s white majority that most considered him to be a communist. In order to have an institute of that magnitude there has to be a great location site. Richard Arrington and Vann chose the site on the corner of 6th avenue and 16th street north as the future home of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute this site held a lot of history involving the civil rights movement. The block of land on the corner of 16th street and 6th avenue north was purchased in 1990 and the groundbreaking was set for June of 1990.
In the upcoming years the politicians were all about keeping the city viable through annexations and developments. In many areas of Birmingham there were a lot of rundown roads as well as living areas and it was on the City of Birmingham to fix these areas. Richard knew that Birmingham would only remain viable if it broke away from the other suburban cities surrounding it and developed economic initiatives that created the new jobs the city needed to create a strong tax base. The municipal tax structure in Alabama is built around commercial development or businesses. Without having a lot of businesses, the city’s tax base drives up, followed by a decline in basic city services such as police, fire, and sanitation services. More than 75 percent of Birmingham’s annual revenue comes from the following sources, sales taxes, .occupational, job taxes, and business license taxes. If there is no business, there are no jobs, no business license taxes, and no sales on which to collect taxes, and so on. One of Arrington’s administration first successful downtown projects was the development of an office building called the financial center. It is located on block 60 northeast, the previous site of an old Birmingham hotel.
The entire history of blacks in Birmingham has been one of a struggle for justice for being seen and treated as human beings. The fight for minority participation was not limited to just getting the city of Birmingham back in order. The fight was on a much wider spectrum which includes voting, employment discrimination, judicial discrimination, law enforcement discrimination, public accommodations discrimination, and in general, just about everything involved in daily life.
The birth of new politics was only the beginning of the changes that Arrington wanted to implement when it came to the city of Birmingham. Before the existence of the coalition, the city’s fathers never had to deal with the demands of a united black political entity.
The main strategy of the coalition was to be an “open organization” that welcomed new members, especially aspiring young political candidates. No one could ever accuse Richard of barring anyone or ignoring younger and often more dissident members. The policy was set to seek out young people with leadership potential and recruit them to be a part of the group. The coalition also was a nonpartisan organization, even though 95 percent of its endorsees for political office for Democrats. The coalition supported Richard and helping him to become the first black mayor of Birmingham. Even though the coalition was open they were not open to women being elected president over the coalition. Of course, there were also a few women who didn’t revel in the idea of a sister being president. After nearly two and a half decades as one of Alabama’s strongest political forces, the organization began to lose its strength. Weakness came from within first. For years members labored in numerous political campaigns for candidates we supported strictly as unpaid volunteers. As the years wore on we made the mistake of letting volunteers get paid to work political races as coalition members. This led to an influx of individuals who had never been volunteers but joined the volunteer ranks for the money.
One thing that Alabama is known for is The University of Alabama, Auburn, UAB, and the Magic City Classic. On August 30, 2004, the mayor of the City of Birmingham announced that the Univ. of Alabama Crimson Tide would cease playing football at the historic Legion Field. A Mercedes plant took place in Birmingham the first to be outside of Europe. Legion Field and Alabama Crimson Tide football had a tremendous economic and civic impact on Birmingham. So with the decline of the finances of Legion cam some negative impact on Birmingham’s economy and civic pride.
Birmingham main concern was about transition and reconciliation. Transition is change and is by its very nature ongoing. The day Richard Arrington placed his right hand on the Bible, to take his sworn oath of office as Mayor of Birmingham on November 13, 1979; its once booming steel economy upon which the city’s economy was built was stagnant and dying. When I was elected mayor, my staff immediately set to work to develop and implement strategies that could bring the city economic relief. During Richard Arrington’s reign he created so many opportunities for the African American communities he wanted to make a change and he did just that during his time as mayor. Birmingham is forever changed by the decisions that Richard Arrington decided to make for his city economy