Birmingham is a place where history has been made. It’s a place where citizens have taken it on themselves to do what was necessary to make Birmingham a better city for all of the people who call it home.
It’s a place where individuals have risen to provide the leadership that was needed at those defining historic moments — individuals who have inspired their fellow citizens to ensure a better Birmingham for future generations.
When I think about such individuals, I think first and foremost about people like Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King Jr., who courageously led the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. I also think of those who led the way to progressive changes in the political and governmental arenas, people like David Vann and Richard Arrington Jr., two great leaders in our community who ultimately served as mayor.
These men shared a number of characteristics. Each had not only the ability, but also the willingness to lead, to put themselves on the line in the service of their beliefs and convictions. Each had the courage to challenge entrenched political and financial powers whose only interest in Birmingham was how they could continue to exploit it for their own purposes. Each had a vision of a brighter and more prosperous future — one that included all of the citizens of Birmingham.
Something else they had in common? Youth.
When Shuttlesworth began his long fight to end segregation in Birmingham in 1954, he was 32 years old.
In 1962, when Vann helped lead the effort change Birmingham’s form of government from city commission to mayor-council — a key to getting Bull Connor out of City Hall — he was 33. He went on to be elected to the city council at age 43, and as Birmingham’s mayor at 47.
King was 34 in 1963, when he came to Birmingham to focus national attention on the Civil Rights demonstrations here. He had led the Montgomery bus boycott eight years earlier, at the age of 26.
Arrington was 36 years old in 1971, when he became the second black person elected to the Birmingham City Council. When he was elected as Birmingham’s first black mayor eight years later, Arrington had just turned 45.
In other words, the history of Birmingham is rich with examples of comparatively young people stepping up to take leadership roles in efforts that resulted in positive, progressive, and much-needed changes for our community.
One reason I find this interesting is because Birmingham’s current mayor, William Bell — my opponent in the October 3 runoff election that will determine who will lead our city for the next four years — is attempting to make my age (I’m 36) a factor in the election. Actually, it’s more correct to say that Mayor Bell (who is 68, by the way) is using surrogates to try and sell voters on the ridiculous idea that I’m “too young” and “too inexperienced” to be the mayor Birmingham needs to lead us into the future.
Since I finished first in the August 22nd mayoral primary, those Bell surrogates have taken to talk radio and social media, making all the noise they can to distract the people of Birmingham from the real issues in this campaign — things like rising crime, deteriorating neighborhoods, flat job growth, and increasing poverty.
And the surrogates are only going to get louder between now and October 3.
Meanwhile, I’m going to keep talking about the things we need to do to move Birmingham forward. My administration will create opportunities for all Birmingham residents, promoting economic expansion and job growth with a special focus on minority and women-owned small businesses. We will work every day to restore the public’s trust in City Hall — trust that has been eroded by bad relations between the mayor and city council and a lack of openness and accessibility to citizens and the news media.
The Woodfin Administration will broaden efforts to revitalize our neighborhoods, working in every area of the city to reduce blight, overgrown lots, abandoned properties, and crime, and to increase the safety and security of all citizens. We will devote the dollars and resources necessary to repave streets, fill potholes, and repair sidewalks across Birmingham.
Most importantly, the Woodfin Administration will invest in the children of Birmingham. We’ll work with the Birmingham City Schools on initiatives to establish early childhood learning centers, expand Pre-K and summer reading programs, and engage UAB and Birmingham’s growing technology sector in creating a “school to startup pipeline” for high school juniors and seniors. We’ll also establish an endowment for the “Fred Shuttlesworth Opportunity Scholarship,” to provide debt-free tuition for every graduating Birmingham City Schools student who wants to attend a community college in Jefferson County.
In all honesty, many of these initiatives are things that have worked in other communities across the country — and that could have been working in Birmingham, if we’d had leadership with the vision to implement them and the determination to make them work. Instead, Mayor Bell’s focus has been narrow, his vision limited, his attention on the few rather than the many.
As a result, Birmingham continues to fall farther and farther behind other cities — cities where progressive, citizen-oriented leadership has made a difference. We are behind, and we’re running out of time and opportunity to catch up. We’re running out of time to make Birmingham everything it can be.
We’re all familiar with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” One of the many stirring phrases is his reference to “the fierce urgency of now.” That single, ringing phrase summed up his conviction that the time had come for positive, decisive action — and that, if that action was not taken, the time would pass, perhaps never to come again.
Today, I’m running into more and more people across Birmingham who express a similarly fierce sense of urgency about the historic potential of the election before us. Like me, they sense an opportunity to set our city on a better and brighter path — and they sense that, if we don’t do it now, then time may pass Birmingham by.
That’s why we can’t wait. There’s too much at stake.