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Montgomery, Ala., mayor on leading the city through the voting rights battle

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we've been in Montgomery, Ala., this week, but before we head out, we want to visit with the city's mayor, Steven Reed. He was sworn in as mayor of Montgomery in 2019. He's a native of the city and the first African American to hold the position, but those aren't the reasons we wanted to visit with him. He leads the state's capital city at a time when there's a fierce voting rights battle taking shape in Alabama, and he's also dealing with another issue we've been reporting on this weekend - the fight over history and what we choose to remember. We'll bring you more of that reporting next week, including a tour with attorney Bryan Stevenson of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which he founded. The memorial commemorates the thousands of men and women who were killed by lynching in the United States.

But for my conversation with Reed, I focused on the fact that his city is filled with dozens of memorials to the Confederacy. And that's something he wants to change, but he's facing backlash. His city was fined $25,000 for changing the name of Jefferson Davis Avenue, named for the Confederate general, to Fred Gray Avenue, named for the local civil rights lawyer and activist. When we spoke, I asked Mayor Reed what inspired him to make these changes.

STEVEN REED: So I pulled together a committee to study the city of Montgomery and all of our public spaces and places. And that committee was made up of several historians, both local and state, as well as a longtime archivist at the State of Alabama Department of Archives. And we have come up with a list of places that we believe should be renamed because of who they were named for. And that was a very interesting exercise to go through that with them because, again, even growing up here, there were just facts that I did not know. And as I learned who some of the streets were named after - not all of them have first and last names, but when I learned some of those parts, it became, you know, real clear what the pattern was. And when you looked at the timing of when these places were named for these people, it became very clear that this was an act of the local government and the local government leaders - and civic leaders, by the way - showing their disdain for the things that were changing in Montgomery, in Alabama, in the nation in the '50s and certainly in the '60s.

MARTIN: So wait a minute. Hold on. Let me just jump in. So you're saying that a lot of these entities - parks, schools, streets, et cetera - were not named during the Civil War era or even immediately thereafter. You're saying that these names, like, for example, the imposition of the Confederate battle flag into a number of state flags or putting on top of state capitols - you're saying that happened in response to the civil rights movement. That was not some 19th-century movement.

REED: No.

MARTIN: So did you pay the fine?

REED: We are going to pay the fine.

MARTIN: You are going to pay the fine.

REED: Yes.

MARTIN: OK.

REED: But there's actually a bill right now that's been proposed to change that fine and to increase it so that the penalty would be more severe for cities or, you know, municipalities to make these changes, even school boards to make those changes to schools. It would increase it from $25,000 for one act to $5,000 a day that - every day that monument is down until it has been adjudicated. So again, we see that pushback coming to the decisions that cities around the state of Alabama have made, with the city of Montgomery probably being one of the more recent ones in what we did here by renaming Jefferson Davis Avenue to attorney Fred Gray Avenue.

MARTIN: Speaking of history, you've got a new cultural institution and tourist attraction in Montgomery in the Legacy Museum. In a way, it seems to be a physical manifestation of this whole debate that we've just been talking about, about what is remembered and what is memorialized. And I'm just wondering, as a person who grew up there, what does it mean to you to have the Legacy Museum there and the memorial there?

REED: I mean, the Legacy Museum has been a game changer for the city of Montgomery and the state of Alabama, in my opinion, and I think it really is a game changer for the nation. It is a place that, to me, I can only compare part to the Holocaust Museum as being that impactful. When you go through it the first time and you go through the Memorial for Peace and Justice and you understand the lynchings that took place, you understand, again, that period of history, of why there was this rise in domestic terrorism primarily aimed at Black men, women and children. And so to have that here really puts a level of responsibility on behalf of the city and on behalf of the leadership.

And one of the things that I've said since I've been in office is that we will not just talk about the symbols without dealing with the substance of this. And we will not act as if this is something that just happened coincidentally or doesn't happen here. We will address it right here because we have this museum, which shares with us the history of Africans being brought here in the transatlantic slave trade all the way through the era of slavery and Jim Crow leading to the era of mass incarceration.

MARTIN: As mayor, I think you're also probably interested in whether it's bringing tourists to the city. I mean, obviously, the COVID pandemic has really affected a lot of people's ability and willingness to travel. But is it a destination?

REED: Oh, it's the No. 1 driver of tourism, not only in our city. It's one of the Top 5 drivers of tourism in this entire state, beyond the beaches.

MARTIN: Wow.

REED: So - and that's good for us because people get a chance to see Montgomery as it is right now and not the Montgomery that they read about in 1955.

MARTIN: How about that.

REED: Right. There's been a lot of progress, and we're trying to bring more. But it also allows you to learn more about American history, and the American history is not complete without the telling of Montgomery and Selma and Tuskegee. And so they learn a lot more about this country and the everyday people who have helped and shaped to make it what it is. And they learn a little bit more about slavery. They learn a little bit more about division. Well, that puts us right where we are right now in 2022 and where we have been, in my opinion, under the previous administration. And you understand, again, how people putting out propaganda can lead to people believing and following that, whether it's with vaccination rates or whether it's with approaches to voting rights or other issues around diversity, equity and inclusion. All of these things have some connectivity to what you will see here as it relates to the Confederacy and its birth and ultimate demise or even as it relates to those that ignited the modern civil rights movement and how they made that happen.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I've - you've been very generous with your time. What are one or two goals for your city this year, and what will be your metric of success?

REED: I think our measure of success here in the city of Montgomery is, one, to address the acute rise of violent crime that has impacted not only us but, you know, most major and midsize cities across this country. And I think the second part of that is to make sure that we put this community on much more solid education and economic footing than we have been in the last couple of years. It allows the people to show them that we hear their concern, we understand their fears and that we have to make sure that, as leaders, that we're actually leading. And you can't do that with an ear to the ground and a finger to the wind. That's an undignified position. You have to lead in knowing why you're in this position and what you hope to change and what outcomes you want to see for those that you represent in order to really make it better for everyone that's in this community. And that's at the top of our agenda for 2022.

MARTIN: That is Steven Reed, the mayor of Montgomery, Ala. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for talking with us.

REED: Thank you all so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.