Steven L. Reed smooths his gray suit jacket before he grips the podium. The mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, Reed has seen the coronavirus tear through his city faster than anywhere else in the state. The hospitals have run out of beds; medical professionals are pleading for help. If Reed had had his way, he would have issued a stay-at-home order to stamp this out, but he’s limited by the state constitution, which grants the necessary authority only to the governor. So, on June 16, he is standing before eight city-council members with a simple plea: Require everyone to wear a mask.
“The longer we keep this going, the more we’re going to hurt ourselves,” Reed says. “Is it that inconvenient to tell people to wear masks?” The ordinance he’s requesting would carry a small fine if disobeyed. But half of his audience is skeptical. Wouldn’t a public-service announcement be just as good? one councilor asks. Reed responds that providing people with accurate public-health information is important but that “some regulation” is necessary to slow the spread of the virus.
One by one, medical professionals and Montgomery residents approach the microphone and testify about the need for masks. More than 90 percent of the people in the intensive-care unit at the city’s largest hospital are Black. For the most at-risk groups, one man says, mask wearing is not a symbolic political issue but a matter of life and death. He tugs at his mask and fiddles with his shirt. He’s lost six relatives to the virus. His brother is in the hospital dying. “The question on the table,” he says, “is: Do Black lives matter?”
Since the death of George Floyd, the whole country has been confronting that question. But for Reed and his peers—the wave of Black Democratic mayors who have swept into southern city halls in the decade since Steve Benjamin became the first Black mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, in 2010—the question has particular political urgency. Those mayors—Keisha Lance Bottoms in Atlanta; Frank Scott Jr. in Little Rock, Arkansas; Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Alabama; Vi Lyles in Charlotte, North Carolina; Chokwe Antar Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi; Reed in Montgomery; and others—represent cities with large, and in some cases predominantly, Black populations. The symbolic progress these politicians embody is expressed in a collection of firsts: first Black mayor of one city, first Black woman mayor of another, youngest mayor of a third. But as they lead their cities through a national reckoning with systemic racism—amid a pandemic that has exacerbated lethal inequities—symbolism alone won’t do. Navigating through overlapping crises—and advancing the rights and living standards of their constituents—requires the full application of symbolic power combined with the canny use of the policy levers they hold as elected officials. These two sources of power are different; leaning on one can sometimes hinder the use of the other, and getting the balance right is difficult.
When Reed, who is 46, broke two centuries of racial precedent to become Montgomery’s first Black mayor, in 2019, thousands of the city’s residents exhaled. For most of Montgomery’s 200-year history, Reed told me, the plight of the city’s Black people—who make up roughly 60 percent of the population there—has been overlooked. The same was true in any number of cities across the South and beyond. Left unaddressed, dissatisfaction only brews. As Reed stands before the council, he’s talking about masks—but, more fundamentally, what he’s saying is that the Black people in his city are being heard.
After more than an hour of testimony, the council votes. With one member absent, it splits down the middle. Four members—three Black, one white—support the measure. Four members—all white—vote against it. The majority of the white council members can’t be convinced that masks are necessary. One Black member proposes a watered-down measure—a recommendation instead of a requirement—reasoning that it’s better to do something instead of nothing. Another Black member wonders aloud why the council seems unwilling to take decisive action on something as simple as wearing masks.
As they bicker, Reed has already made up his mind. If the city council is not going to require masks, he’ll do it himself. And he’ll deal with whatever legal or political consequences will follow later.
The recent profusion of Black mayors in the South is striking when you consider that, not so long ago, there weren’t any at all. In 1969, when Howard N. Lee took over as the mayor of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he was the first Black person elected mayor of any predominantly white city in the South since Reconstruction.
“The real revolution taking place in the South must occur in the political arena,” Lee said in 1971. “The black elected official is a real symbol of black power.”
But winning elections only gets you so far. Simply putting Black faces in leadership positions doesn’t change the underlying systems. When Lee took office, the experience of cities with recently elected Black mayors in the Midwest had already begun to illustrate this. In 1967, Carl B. Stokes was elected the first Black mayor of Cleveland, where racism and segregation had kept Black communities poor and overpoliced. Businesses were closing. Black people were losing jobs. Resentment festered among Black residents, and despite Stokes’s election, it boiled over into a rebellion in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. At first, Stokes took bold steps that previous mayors would not have, pulling all white police officers from Glenville, in hopes that Black officers from the Cleveland police department could negotiate a peace with the rioters. But when that failed, Stokes sent white officers back to Glenville, and resorted to the same tactics previous mayors had used to quash the uprising. He asked for the National Guard, and tanks rolled through the neighborhood. His political support cratered. While “his method was less repressive” than that of previous, white mayors, the political scientists William E. Nelson Jr. and Philip J. Meranto observed in their classic 1977 book, Electing Black Mayors, “he did not support the rebellion of his people; he opposed it by using his position as mayor to restore law and order in Cleveland’s black ghetto.” Surveying the broader generation of Black mayors from the late ’60s and ’70s, Nelson and Meranto came away jaded by the mayors’ inability to address structural inequities.
In a sense, that generation of leaders found themselves between two sources of power. They were, effectively, political outsiders, who faced all the handicaps of outsiders as they tried to work the political system from the inside. And yet, as newly elected officials, they were reluctant to aggressively use the bully pulpit to stoke the energy bubbling up from the streets. A study by Edmond J. Keller, a political scientist at UCLA, found that while policy preferences of the ’70s-era Black mayors differed from those of their white counterparts, the Black mayors were more “constrained” than white mayors in acting upon those preferences by governors, city councils, and reticent local coalitions. If broad support for effecting change was not already present, Black politicians would shy away from trying to catalyze it.
The new generation of mayors, by contrast, impatient with historical constraints, have been more willing to supplement the tools they can use from inside government with the energy from the political movements outside of it. In the summer of 2019, drawing heavily on the advocacy work of political activists, Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, signed an ordinance to “ban the box,” disallowing questions about previous felony convictions on job applications, which had made it hard for many constituents to gain employment. The year before that in Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, bolstered by support from criminal-justice reformers and advocates for the poor, signed an ordinance ending the cash-bail requirement for misdemeanors, a policy that had left low-level offenders languishing pointlessly in jail because they couldn’t afford to pay their way out.
When the coronavirus hit in March, Frank Scott Jr.—Little Rock’s first elected Black mayor—quickly implemented curfews and imposed limits on gatherings, without any guidance from the state. He knew what the virus could do to his constituents, and especially the underserved ones—the people of color, the people living in poverty. “I’m a son of southwest Little Rock, and I still live there, so I’ve seen the disparities in our city,” Scott told me. But he also reached beyond the official tools of city hall and drew on his powers of sympathy and suasion: In June, when Little Rock residents took to the streets to protest police brutality, he helped keep the unrest from becoming too violent or destructive by marching with the protesters down Capitol Avenue. Scott’s success in mollifying the protesters stood in sharp contrast to, say, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who was booed out of a rally that he attempted to speak at, or New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was called “forcefully oblivious” (among many other things) after he said that the NYPD had acted “appropriately” in an incident when two squad cars barreled through a barrier and hit protesters.
In some of these southern cities, the Democratic mayors have found themselves clashing with their Republican governors. On July 10, as coronavirus cases surged across the South (and three days after she herself had tested positive for COVID‑19), Bottoms told Atlanta residents that the city would be starting over, reinstating Phase 1 reopening guidelines—closing restaurant dining rooms and nonessential facilities, limiting travel, and requiring masks—by executive order. “Our communities aren’t waiting for us to figure it out; they are calling upon us to definitively tell them, in this moment, how we have figured it out,” Bottoms told me. “Things often go in dog years in government, but the patience for that just doesn’t exist anymore.”
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp lashed out against Bottoms, calling the order “legally unenforceable,” and filed a lawsuit against her. Her response was simple: “We’ll see him in court.”
Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, has been somewhat surprised to find himself working from inside government at all, because he emerged from a political tradition that believes real change comes mainly from outside of it. “I was raised by a network of elders who were engaged in community activism,” Lumumba told me. His father, Chokwe Lumumba, a successful human-rights lawyer, an avowed Black nationalist, and an ardent proponent of reparations for Black Americans, was averse to electoral politics. He did not believe they could change the situation for Black people in America—the progress was too incremental. A growing body of political-science research supported this view. “This ability to effect mainly symbolic, rather than substantive, changes reflects the limits of black politics,” the late James Button, a political scientist at the University of Florida, wrote in 1982.
“When people feel locked out of a system, they rail against it,” the younger Lumumba told me. He remembers his father’s generation constructing community centers, hosting day camps for children, and offering martial-arts training. But over time, the Lumumbas came to realize that while the constraints on rebuilding the system from within were real, so were the limits on what could be done from outside electoral politics. “We grew to view politics as a means to better support communities,” Lumumba said.
So the family began working on campaigns, and then were drafted into the fight themselves. In 2013, Lumumba’s father ran to become the mayor of Jackson and won. He immediately began pushing citizens to vote for tax increases that would fund repairs to Jackson’s crumbling infrastructure—and was building momentum toward this goal when he died of a heart attack in 2014. His death prompted his son to run for the same office, and three years ago, at 34, Chokwe Antar Lumumba became the youngest mayor in the city’s history. He built on his father’s efforts, pushing through a property-tax increase that raised the money to repave the city’s decrepit roads. He’s not in city hall just to get reelected, he says. “The failure is when elected officials become intoxicated with the power” and lose sight of the priorities of the community, he told me.
Steven Reed’s father, unlike Lumumba’s, always worked from within the political system, as the chairman for several decades of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the first statewide political organization for Black people. But Steven Reed understands the disillusionment that can set in among lawmakers when they discover how at odds reform and reelection can be. He saw such disillusionment while working as a senior aide in the Alabama lieutenant governor’s office. The wrong issues get prioritized. “State lawmakers would say, ‘Well, I know this needs to be fixed, but if I do this, then that group is going to get mad,’ or ‘It’s never going to change, so why even try?,’ or ‘If I vote for this, I may not be reelected.’ ” Reed has come to believe that if politicians do what is just, they need not be overly burdened by worries about the electoral repercussions. In this way, they’ll build trust with voters, which becomes political capital.
All of the southern Black mayors I’ve spoken with recognize the political limitations they face. Uprooting fundamentally racist structures or unjust political systems requires a comprehensive approach, and mayors have only limited influence over economic development and the health-care and criminal-justice systems. Not uncommonly, they have to contend with hostile governors while working to ensure that the coalitions that elected them—many of which extend beyond Black communities and white progressives to moderates more concerned with generating economic growth than accelerating social justice—remain supportive. Yet these mayors also recognize that achieving real justice calls for risk-taking, and this unusual moment might finally allow it. Sometimes that invites anger. (Steven Reed is used to this; as a kid, his family received death threats in response to the political activity of his father.) Sometimes it means nudging your friends out of their jobs, as Keisha Lance Bottoms did to Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, who stepped down in June when evidence of brutality on the force emerged. Sometimes it means getting sued, as Bottoms has been in Atlanta—or as Randall Woodfin was, in Birmingham, when he had the city finish pulling down a Confederate statue that protesters had started to topple. “I’d rather have a civil suit than civil unrest in my city,” Woodfin told me, after the Alabama attorney general sued him.
By dint of their positions, these mayors have megaphones; by dint of growing up Black in the South, they have firsthand experience of the brutality of southern racism, which gives them credibility with their constituents. Simply listening to their communities, and broadcasting their concerns, has moral value and political benefit. But, as Lumumba puts it, “until we move from being the governed to the governors, the same problems will persist in new generations.”
The day after Montgomery’s city council split almost along racial lines over requiring face coverings, Steven Reed stood in front of the same doctors who had stressed their necessity. “Your words last night echoed across the country. They reminded us … of how vital it is for all of us in leadership to take action,” he said. He announced that he would be requiring masks by executive order. “I thought it was important not just from a policy standpoint but from a political standpoint to say that I’d heard the people of Montgomery’s call for action,” Reed told me. Three weeks later, the city council followed his lead and reversed its original decision in a 7–0 vote (with one absence and one abstention). A week after that, Kay Ivey, Alabama’s Republican governor, implemented a statewide mask order.
The events of 2020 have forced these mayors to focus their leadership on day-to-day crisis management. But they remain committed to addressing the underlying inequities that exacerbated the crises. Bottoms and Lumumba are members of a group of mayors exploring a universal basic income; Lumumba supports a nonprofit pilot program for one in Jackson. Lumumba and Woodfin were part of a small group of mayors that pressed Democratic presidential-primary candidates to provide actionable plans for closing the racial gaps in wealth and school equity.
The mayors’ politics differ, and their governing strategies and rhetorical styles vary, but their central messages are the same. “We’re creating the playbook on how to move from platitudes to policy and policy to true action,” Frank Scott told me. “We have to show the results.”