MLK Day lecture - Montgomery, AL, Mayor Steven Reed

January 16, 2024 1:09:14
Kaltura Video

The Ford School welcomes Montgomery, AL, Mayor Steven Reed to Weill Hall for an event in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. January, 2024.


0:00:00.0 Celeste Watkins: Afternoon everyone, it is truly wonderful to see you, thank you for braving the cold.

0:00:07.4 Steven Reed: Thank you.

0:00:08.3 CW: I'm Celeste Watkins, the Joan and Sanford Weill Dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. I'm also the founding director of our Center for Racial Justice here at the Ford School, and I'm delighted to welcome all of you here this afternoon.

0:00:25.1 SR: Cool.

0:00:25.4 CW: For today's policy talks event, the Ford School's annual event in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Featuring my friend and a great public servant, Montgomery Alabama Mayor Steven Reed.

0:00:44.3 SR: Thank you, thank you.

0:00:45.8 CW: It's so good to see our Ford School community gathered here. And welcome to the many of you from across campus and beyond, who I know are tuning in virtually. This event is part of the University of Michigan's annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. This year's symposium theme refers to a phrase in Dr. King's, I have a dream speech. "With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood." He said. And it salutes his belief in the transformative power of faith, hope and love to mend the risks in society. Like Dr. King, our guest speaker today is a graduate of Morehouse College in HBCU in Atlanta, Georgia. Also a graduate of Vanderbilt University's Owens Graduate School of Management. I was fortunate to get to know him when he was at Morehouse and I was attending Spelman College just a few years ago.

0:01:43.8 SR: That's right, I like that.

0:01:46.3 CW: Mayor Reed was sworn in November, 2019 as the 57th Mayor of Montgomery, a destination known as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. He's the first African American to hold this position. His public career began when he served as Montgomery County's first African American and youngest elected probate judge. In that position, he served on the Department of Homeland Security's Election Integrity Commission and initiated a statewide campaign to educate the public about voter ID laws. He was the first probate judge in the state to grant same sex marriage licenses following the Supreme Court ruling. As mayor, he's led the efforts to increase funding from Montgomery's Public Schools for the first time in 30 years.

0:02:34.1 CW: He restructured the city government to increase efficiency and effectiveness while ensuring the city maintained a balanced budget without having to touch reserves, borrow money or initiate layoffs. Mayor Reed has been recognized by Route 50 as one of 10 leaders nationwide who are tackling some of the most pressing issues facing America cities and is one of the 10 most powerful and influential local officials by Yellowhammer News. He received the Martin Luther King Leadership Award for government service. He reflects on his journey and the lessons he learned from his father, a civil rights activist in his book, First, Best: Lessons in Leadership and Legacy from Today's Civil Rights Movement.

0:03:18.2 CW: In his introduction he writes, "Reaching the promised land means winning the fight for our democracy. It demands that we eradicate the racial wealth gap. It requires us to end the horrors of mass incarceration and restore opportunity, dignity, and hope in our most vulnerable communities. Above all else, reaching the Promised Land calls us to cultivate the next generation and pass down the culture, the teachings and the value system that our forefathers and foremothers carried before us." Beautifully written in just a portion of this great book. After he joins me in conversation, two Ford School students, Kenneth Wilson and Christiana Verdelus will read audience questions, which you can submit using the QR code on cards distributed here in the auditorium or which can be submitted online. I would also like to acknowledge our co-sponsor, the Center for Local State and Urban Policy and our media partner, Detroit Public Television, which is rebroadcasting and distributing this program across the PBS network. With that, please join me in welcoming Mayor Reed.


0:04:32.7 SR: Thank you, thank you for being here. Thank you.

0:04:33.2 CW: How you doing? 

0:04:34.0 SR: I'm well, how are you? 

0:04:35.8 CW: Good, good. So I feel kind of bad 'cause you got off the plane coming from Montgomery, Alabama and it is freezing here.

0:04:42.9 SR: See, I thought you were gonna say you felt bad because Michigan beat Alabama...

0:04:47.1 CW: That too.

0:04:47.7 SR: In the Rose Bowl and I had to come in one week after and sing Hail to the Victors.

0:04:53.1 CW: Right, right, and play nice at University of Michigan.

0:04:55.0 SR: Yes, yes. I would do just that.

0:04:57.1 CW: So welcome Chris you wanna adjust.

0:05:01.7 Chris: Your mic, sir. [0:05:01.8] ____.

0:05:03.9 SR: All right, that might help. How's that? 

0:05:05.2 Chris: Good.

0:05:06.2 CW: All right, thanks, Chris.

0:05:07.2 SR: We got all the mics on.

0:05:08.8 CW: Yeah. So I thought it would be very interesting to move through this journey of this conversation, thinking about the importance of different destinations on your leadership journey, but also thinking about our students, but the larger audience who all have to think about a journey through their lives and the ways in which people and places and policies end up being so, so influential. So I wanna kind of walk through that journey with you. And I wanna start with the importance of place, the importance of place. And I wonder if you can situate Montgomery, Alabama for us. I wonder if you can situate it historically and I wonder if you can encourage us to see it not just as a city in time but as a current and vibrant and dynamic city to the present.

0:06:04.2 SR: That's a great question. I think Montgomery is a city with different personalities, if you will, different identities. Montgomery was founded in 1819 and became one of the largest places for slaves to be traded in the South because of its proximity to the Alabama River. And when you think about, that led to the growing economy, which was based around cotton at that time in particular, in what's called the black belt, not because of the population but because of the rich soil that so much of the farmland had and the color of that soil. And it then became the State Capitol after a few moves and has served as the permanent capitol for the state of Alabama since then. So, growing as a State Capitol, it was the place where the telegram was sent about the Confederate States seceding from the Union.

0:07:07.6 SR: And Jefferson Davis has a star or a spot that's designated by a star on our State Capitol steps still to this day, where he was sworn in. So our State Capitol is that State Capitol of the Confederate States of America. And when you consider all that happened during that time in post-Civil War Reconstruction and then obviously the advent of Jim Crow laws, a lot has taken place there only to then be challenged, if you will, by people like ED Nixon, who was leading marches on City Hall for the fair treatment of colored, at that time, school children, something that we still wrestle with to this day when it comes to school funding and equitable investment. Only to be challenged by a pastor by the name of the Reverend Dr. Vernon Johns, who was an Oberlin College graduate who led Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and challenged our city government to do right by Negroes, notice the change in terminology that I'm using. And so when Reverend Johns got a little bit too controversial, the church brought in this pastor by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. Who was not controversial at all, who was the son of a prominent Baptist preacher in Atlanta and who would not cause any trouble.

0:08:45.7 CW: So they thought.

0:08:47.0 SR: At the age of 26, just out of seminary, only to be asked by, again, the leader of the black community for so many decades, ED Nixon, to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was the organization that initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was supposed to be one day and ended up lasting 382 days. I think it is the blueprint for civil disobedience and commitment to movement and impact in this country. I don't think we've seen since anything like that. And so Montgomery has really seen the arc of the pain of this country as well as the progress. And I think what we have seen since then have been starts and stops of progress politically and otherwise in Montgomery and in Alabama, but not at the level or at the pace that I think many would have liked to see, whether that's been through the challenge of state government or whether that has been through just the national politics and the policy that come out of that. We have not been a part of the growth primarily of the New South, like parts of Georgia in particular around Atlanta or the Carolinas and other places as well.

0:10:10.6 SR: And so Montgomery has kind of had this push and pull about, well, how far do we want to go and how fast do we want to pace ourselves and what are we willing to do in order to get there? And I think prior to my election in 2019, which ironically came 200 years after the city was founded, the city has had a benefit of being able to be known as the birthplace of the civil rights movement without practicing what the civil rights movement really was about. And that is some of the hypocrisy that we challenge today from City Hall. Those are things that we wrestle with. We have to have open conversation about now. And those are things that I think still make people, some, at least, uncomfortable in our city, in our state, because we're having now honest conversation. It's very easy to have superficial conversation about change. That is very easy and always has been. Dr. King wrote about that in several of his books and talked about it in many of his sermons. So it's very easy to talk about coexistence versus not existing at all. And we have to think that through in a place like Montgomery, and I think that's where we are, and I want to credit so many who have helped us get to that point in different layers.

0:11:50.3 SR: But certainly in the last 10 plus years has been Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative and the Museum of... The Legacy Museum, as well as the Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is showing a light on really the impact of slavery, not just in the South, but throughout this country, the companies, the families, the institutions that benefited from it, from the East Coast through the Midwest all the way to the West Coast, it is a fascinating look. And I think for us to really be the city that hosts this museum, not only bringing leaders in from public sector and the private sector and philanthropic sector as well, but everyday citizens who want to learn about the true history of the country is certainly significant. And that is where Montgomery is and where we're poised to go, I think, is really being much more than just a place that talks about it or is reflective of the past, but one is building toward a bright future.

0:12:37.5 CW: So the way that you're using the past as, first of all, a place of recognition to understand how inequities have gotten generated and how they've been perpetuated, but also using history to really situate yourself in a national conversation around racial inequality.

0:12:58.5 SR: Sure.

0:13:01.5 CW: I can imagine there are people that were really resistant to the building of the museum, to situating Montgomery in this way. I can imagine someone saying, "We should move on. We don't wanna be known and reminded of our history there." It just reminds people of a past that we wanna forget or pretend, or some would say didn't really happen in the way that we all know that it happened. How do you respond to a critique that is really challenging the idea of owning Montgomery's history? 

0:13:37.3 SR: Well, I think it's the old axiom of if you don't know your past, you're bound to repeat it, right? And I think that we're in very sensitive times right now, that everyone in this room and knows that are watching ought to be understanding of. And you see this in the rhetoric that that's used. You see this in some of the tactics. I think that's a part of the political discourse and has been for the last few years that for whatever reason we're accepting as normal when in the past they would be shamed, in the past they would be pushed out. And so we really have to figure out as a nation, who are we and where do we want to go? It's not now just about the deep South, it's about the nation as a whole. And what I'd like to think is that Montgomery can serve as a place that people can understand the arc of this country, but also can understand, again, how you move in a positive direction, maybe at a slower pace, again, than many of us would've liked. But how do you move forward? And what are the tough conversations? What does that really entail? What are the tough decisions that you really have to consider? 

0:14:46.7 SR: And I think when you really factor in our city's place, not only again, in the past, but where we are in the present, we welcome those discussions. And so we have board leaders, we have presidents of institutions, and we have cabinet members from the President of the United States all the way through influencers, entertainers, and actors, people who have platforms that are coming to learn. It's fascinating how much people don't know about one American history. But also just about public policy. And it's something that no one in this room or those that are watching virtually should forget. There are a lot of people who don't understand civics 101, regardless if we may believe that, or we were taught it in elementary, middle school, and high school most Americans don't understand that. And so it's up to us, I think, to translate that and make sure that people can follow it and connect the dots a little bit as to why these things make sense. And from Montgomery standpoint, our city boast of being the place where Mrs. Rosa Parks made a courageous stand, where attorney Fred Gray and others, helped her through legal challenges and Judge Frank Johnson through the courts assisted marchers to get from Selma to Montgomery spurred on by the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion, Alabama, the home of Coretta Scott King.

0:16:14.7 SR: And really brought about by the arrest of James Orange. So when we think about the domino effect, these things didn't happen in isolation. These things were happening coordinated, and it took all of government, it took all of activism as well as those that were really on the right side, even in Montgomery, to understand what was at stake. And I think that the final thing that I'll say is I'm really surprised by how many local residents we have who did not understand what was happening in Montgomery at the time, whose parents or grandparents did not share with them all the things that were taking place, who have acknowledged to me that, "We have a lot to learn. I'm embarrassed to see my parents or my grandparents name on this list, on these documents, we had no idea." And so it is an opportunity to reflect, but it's also, as I share with a lot of them, an opportunity not to correct any wrongs of any ancestor or someone that is no longer here, but to correct the right now. And that is where you are planted in this moment. What are you doing right now? It's not about what happened 10, 30 or 50 years ago, but what are you doing right now? To address these same issues that Dr. King and so many others were talking about at that time.

0:17:39.3 CW: When you talk about... I really like this notion of correcting them right now. And one of the things that our students think about a lot is how to correct the right now. And they're faced with a choice of, do I do that work back home where I was born and raised and have these roots? Or do I go and explore other places to contribute and make a difference? Talk to us about your decision to focus your work on Montgomery, where you're from. You talk about in your book that it was like a bit of a couturist path to end up back in Montgomery. But you found this calling of your family and your parents and their legacy and their work drawing you in. Can you talk about the importance of placing that...

0:18:22.3 SR: I love how you said it poetically I found this calling. It really, the calling found me, my goal coming out of business school was to build wealth, was to start businesses and if not, go back into corporate America and really help others do that because I kind of view that as really the next leg of the journey of the civil rights movement. Not necessarily the political side, but I think getting back home, not seeing the progress, I mentioned in First, Best that me running for office came out of a sense of frustration and inspiration, frustration that those in office had not done more and weren't willing to do more. And the inspiration of President Obama's run in 2007 and 2008. And so those two things really helped me come to the conclusion. I'd also helped that as I was trying to get friends to run, none of my friends wanted to run for office. Those that wanted to run were people who I didn't think should run.

0:19:24.8 SR: And those that I thought should run didn't want any part of it. And I think that it was a friend of mine who said, "Well, Steve, if you think it's so important, why don't you run?" And you've known me for a long time. I just said, "Well, I just might." That was just kind of the response. And that was kind of the clap back. I didn't have any intent on running at that time. It was just something to say, just to shut them up. But I ended up kind of getting to a point where I started to give a serious consideration because not only was it impacting the city, it was impacting the state. And I just didn't see why people didn't have more courage while there was more focus on being reelected as opposed to doing the right thing.

0:20:07.8 SR: A lot of those people would quote, anyone that we think is worth quoting, but practicing it was something different. And now we post and we share all these things on social media, but at that time, it was just inner speech and in remarks. And I just don't really operate like that. So I decided that, I would pray about it, talk to my family about it. And I think in speaking with my father in particular, who had met Dr. King in 1960, as a SGA president of Alabama State University and was asked to go to Raleigh with other student leaders, representative Clyburn and John Lewis, Diane Nash, so many other luminaries that we know, but hundreds of people whose names that we don't know. And he always brings that up, who worked from around at the country, in particular the South, to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

0:21:02.7 SR: His thing was, well, you're here, if you want to make change often, you have to do it yourself, because until you do that, you probably aren't going to be satisfied with what other people consider to be good progress. And that's really what came about. And I ran and the calling was really just to make change. I've been active on boards and in nonprofits. And so I was very, very active in the community. I just was not in elected office. And I try to stress that now having now been in elected office since 2012, that it's important for people to understand. Everyone has a role to play. Some in front, and out front, some kind of behind the scenes, some through their Rolodex of being able to help run campaigns and finance campaigns, importantly. Those things are important. But I would share with all of the folks here is wherever you decide to run or to get involved, I think it's just to know why you're getting involved. It's less important where, in my opinion, as to the why. And I think if you focus on that, then you can truly, truly have an impact.

0:22:21.3 SR: And communities are welcoming of people who are really sensitive and really invested for the right reasons in it. Communities are resistant to people they view as opportunists, they view as kind of, using them as a means to an end. And I think that if we can kind of keep that in mind and we can get talented people, like these students and graduates here to consider that the local, state and federal levels.

0:22:48.1 CW: So when you ran for office and within your time as probate court judge, you started to really find yourself on the forefront of some of the kind of hot button issues of the day. Same sex marriage, voting rights. And I started to... As I noticed your career, you were operating at the local, but you were participating in these national conversations and really showing how local government is such an important conduit and where the rubber meets the road for so many of these national debates and conversations. So talk to us about your time as a probate court judge and those moments where you took a stand where you really took on an issue that you thought was important locally, but that ended up having these kind of national ramifications.

0:23:38.9 SR: So one, I ran on the issue around voting rights. So in Alabama, the probate judge is a chief election official. So long before elections got to be controversial, they were boring as watching paint dry, right? Nobody cared about us counting votes or who the registrars were. It was just old ladies and retirees who kinda wanted something to do in the election office. So for years, nobody cared about elections. But that was one of the things, one of the reasons why I ran, because the board of registrars had been using Alabama to keep people from voting even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and certainly before that. So it's important to understand kind of the levers of power when it comes to those things. And they were appointed by the probate judge, one by the sheriff, and I think one by the circuit court. But they could basically strike your name from a role or your ancestors name from a role or, just say, well you can't vote here. That was a major issue in Alabama. For instance, my grandfather was able to vote long before most were in Alabama because he had a farm. But more importantly, he paid his poll taxes. That was not the case for 99% of black people in Alabama during that time.

0:25:00.2 CW: And just so you know, 'cause you said it like, oh, he paid his poll... Poll taxes were only charged to black folks...

0:25:07.2 SR: Correct.

0:25:07.2 CW: At the time. Right? That's right. Yeah. And this was a way to disenfranchise. Yeah.

0:25:10.7 SR: Absolutely. And so I ran on that and it was really a quote that I heard from Congressman Lewis, and it was great to end up getting his support in all of my races, including that one in 2012, John Lewis called a voter idea, 21st Century Poll Tax. So that became something that I would say all the time while quoting him. So we went into it with a political mindset. We're going to level the playing field here about what's happening and some of the erosion of progress that we'd seen. But when it came to judgements and legal actions like the Overfield decision and implementing that at state level, I'd love to tell you that, I just knew I would be nominated for a Profile in Courage Award, but it really was a matter of my colleague stepping back as much as it was me stepping forward. So on the Overfield decision was handed down legalizing same sex marriage. We got on a call, there's a probate judge in Alabama. Again, very, very powerful position. I encourage everyone, understand your local government, because the power may not be where you think it is. The notoriety may be, but the power is not there.

0:26:26.1 SR: For instance, in Alabama is the sheriff. Sheriff has immense power even over elections because they control the tabulation of those votes. And a number of other things. So in the Code of Alabama, it is referenced as the high sheriff. So we still call our sheriff, who's a fraternity brother of mine, and actually the first black sheriff in our county's history, the high sheriff. But I say that because it comes with immense power, but most people would think the police chief. Uh-uh. The sheriff has 10 times more power in law enforcement than the police chief. And that's in a lot of states. So it's important to understand what responsibilities, and what's codified in your state constitution when it comes to these things. But for that, I mentioned it in the book, we are on a call and the Supreme Court issued the rule around same sex marriages.

0:27:23.5 SR: Well, the probate judge also issues marriage licenses. In some places, it's a county clerk, but in Alabama comes under the probate judge. And you have probate judges saying they weren't gonna issue marriage licenses. Amazing to me. I mean, I was caught flatfooted on that. Like, what do you mean Supreme Court? Pretty simple. And it was this political and what I'm gonna call this sanctimonious reaction to what people believed about same sex marriage. Well, we take an oath to uphold the constitution. Pretty simple, what you're taking oath to. It's not to your political philosophy. This is what it is. Court ruling is handed down. But you gotta understand that Alabama, as much of the South has still been, as we like to say, not the show me state that Missouri is, but the make me state.

0:28:13.6 SR: And that's how Alabama has been. Whether it was Brown View Board of Education, and the laws that would go on, the lawsuits would go on for 8-10 years before schools and public facilities were truly desegregated, all the way through decisions like this. And I said along with the probate judge of Jefferson County, well, the Supreme Court has issued the ruling, we have to abide by the law and we're going to issue these licenses. Well, I didn't realize that my colleagues were taking a step back as much as it wasn't me taking a step up. But what happened was, when I kind of heard the argument, it was reminiscent of what I had heard from my parents, from my aunts and uncles around civil rights legislation, around voting rights legislation.

0:29:08.1 SR: I mean, very similar tone and tenor, just around a different issue. And I just said, "Well, if you guys are going to take this approach, then mine is gonna be a little bit different." So I took a very proactive approach, one that was media driven in a way to kind of shame and to draw attention to what was happening, and I had a few other colleagues that came along with us, even in terms of legal briefs that were filed. But it was done intentionally to really show and shine a light that, again, you guys talk a good game, but when it comes to civil rights, you aren't practicing it. And you want the benefit of people thinking that there's been all this progress made, which again, there's been some, but not nearly enough in terms of the leadership.

0:29:55.0 SR: And that was the approach that we took. And I guess that's how I ended up doing, whether it was, this week or other, political shows to really talk about what was at stake. Because what I saw is not just the Overfield decision and the issue around same sex marriage, but other decisions that would be made subsequently by the Supreme Court or other federal courts. And what might this set the precedent for judges in Alabama or around the country to then do? Disobey them? Well, then that should come with a price. And I mention in First, Best that we had a chief justice by the name of Roy Moore, who threatened to remove all the probate judges, which he does not have the constitutional right to... Doesn't have the power to do as a chief justice as a supreme court.

0:30:42.6 SR: And I was talking with our sheriff at the time and I just said, "Hey, I'm about to tell him where he can go." And I said, "If he tries to send some people down here, I gotta make sure you got my back." And he was like, "I got your front, back and side." He was like, "I wish he would bring his ass down here, we'll take care of him." Now that's our sheriff's talk, or my sheriff, anyway, so that was pretty much what it was. And you kind of, you need that when you're in those times of tension and uncertainty. And that did embolden me to speak a little louder and speak a little firm about why we did what we did.

0:31:20.6 CW: So let me ask you about that question of substance and style. So clearly, you know the policies, you know the levers of power, but what I also hear is a particular style. There's a grounding in the civil rights movement, but there's also a grounding of how local politics gets done and the ways in which sometimes it can be a little rough and tumble. It can be a little profane. It can be all of these different things. And I wonder if you can talk about how you think about that stylistically, how you think about communicating in ways that are very formal and other ways that are very kind of profane and may get you into trouble but, you know, nevertheless kind of move the agenda forward and understand how to maneuver all of these different contexts. I wonder if you can just talk about that. 'Cause I noticed that kind of shift in language. And I'd wonder if you can talk about how you use that as a tool in the work that you do.

0:32:27.2 SR: I think we all have...

0:32:28.3 CW: The substance and the style.

0:32:28.7 SR: Yeah. I think we all have to do that when you're in a space of making public decisions. You have to know your audience, the strategic communications. What words do you use? You know, who do you cite? What is the rationale? What is the approach? Some may understand Shakespeare, some may understand Jeezy. So, you gotta be able to speak a little bit of both. And you gotta be able to really channel James Baldwin and James Brown. I mean, it literally is that dependent on who you're talking to and really at what level that you feel you need to communicate. Because what I found is, you can have the best idea, you can have the most pure intentions, but if people aren't able to be galvanized by this, then what does it do? When we think about the Civil Rights Movement, the movement leaders understood the power of the press. They understood who they could talk to, what journalists they could trust, who to tell about what meetings will happen when. Those things weren't by accident.

0:33:42.1 CW: Yeah.

0:33:42.7 SR: And it was, if we really think about a seminal point in the Civil Rights Movement, the cameras capturing, the marches being beaten on the bridge at, in Selma, that changed really the trajectory of the movement. I mean, that movement had been stalled for a minute. The Dallas County Voters League had been working long before Dr. King and Andrew Young, and CT Vivian, and so many others. John Lewis obviously came there. So the ability to magnify your message and to reach sometimes even an external audience, one that is not local or so approximate to the issue itself is very important. And whether it's appearing on cable news now, or whether it's the use of social media, which so many of us have the option to do in various ways, all of those are methods to really communicate that you have to consider depending on the topic and depending on the progress that you're making.

0:34:54.4 SR: And again, I don't think Dr. King would have been as impactful without the media. As great as his oratorical skills were unparallel, in my opinion, would not have happened. We can think about the election of the first black president to this country. It doesn't happen without the 2004 convention speech. Maybe he's still in the US Senate. Maybe he would've run for governor or some... But he doesn't go from unknown senator to presidential candidate in four years without that speech. So words are powerful. Imagery is powerful, but also the vehicles of which you have to use is also powerful. And I think when we're trying to convey messages and we're trying to really justify outcomes, all those things are necessary.

0:35:41.3 CW: So I wanna ask you about a moment when you and your city in particular found itself in the spotlight in a way that it didn't anticipate. And you had to...

0:35:52.1 SR: Which way this time? 

0:35:52.2 CW: And you had to think about this question of media. And that is in August, I believe there was a melee. A brawl. A situation...

0:36:01.9 SR: A situation, that's one way to describe it.

0:36:05.6 CW: In Montgomery, where there was a dispute over boating. And essentially a brawl broke down.

0:36:15.0 SR: How many of these folks know what you're talking about? Can we get a raise of hands? 

0:36:19.7 CW: And it went viral. So if you don't know, just Google, Montgomery Brawl.

0:36:28.1 SR: Brawl. Yeah. It'll come up.

0:36:28.2 CW: And imagery of a hat going up. Imagery of a folding chair. Imagery of the boats, imagery of people swimming across to participate in this. And that is your city.

0:36:40.0 SR: Correct.

0:36:44.4 CW: So, as mayor, how do you think about this moment where you see... You're smiling at me, but this is like, really, it's a wonderful moment of, we went to school together. So I can ask you this. 'Cause I really think that you were faced with a question of how are you going to unite the city? How are you going to talk about this to the country that is watching this? How are you gonna navigate this landscape that you're in of social media and high pressure observation? 

0:37:19.0 SR: Man, you made make that sound so sophisticated. I'm gonna simplify this real quick.


0:37:22.7 SR: So, you know, when somebody gets their butt whooped, they just get their butt whooped. Okay? 


0:37:27.9 SR: So sometimes you just got to acknowledge that that's what it. Now I'm gonna back up because I had just left there from a back... We had a back to school event. On our riverfront. We weren't gone 30 minutes before the call came across the police radio, there was a disturbance. So that's how I get it, is a disturbance on the roof. And the really, I hate to say this, but first thing I asked was, any weapons used? Was anybody shot? Now, once you tell me no weapons at that time. Which we didn't know, no weapons were used. And more importantly, no one had been shot, I was like, okay. On to the next. All right, so we are moving on. It's not until the next day that my police chief calls me and tells me I think you better check out social media. Now usually, I'm the first one on or getting a ping or whatever anything that remotely might be viral for what that term means these days.

0:38:28.6 SR: But this one I saw it Sunday midday or something like that, and I was just amazed. Now, for us, we didn't see the view from the boat until hours later. So our cameras are from the land out onto the river because really we're worried about boats and things happening on the water not anything happening on the dock. So for those that have seen it, that shows a little bit but not a lot. It wasn't until later that evening that we saw the guy jumping in the water and swimming from the boat to the dock and everything that took place. So that just changed again. Perspective matters, right? 

0:39:12.2 SR: I can see one thing from this side of the room, someone else can see something from the other side. It matters and that just changed everything and I think from there it was, all right, where is everything right now? How is it being perceived? And at that time so many things were trending to where I think by late that night cable news had picked it up. All right, so this is now a little bit over 24 hours maybe not quite 36 and I was like well, I think we're gonna have to say something about this.

0:39:45.2 CW: Because then it becomes even more of a crisis management.

0:39:47.6 SR: Sure. And at that point social media has indicted, tried, and convicted those that were part of it for better or for worse and my standpoint was to just really not get in front of the story and not be the story, but to try to acknowledge what was going on. So we didn't make comments Monday because we wanted to make sure we got all our facts together and by Tuesday, we had a press conference with our police chief leading it just saying exactly what happened what led up to it and what the steps would be from there. It was really kind of to not get in the way of what had already happened and what had already taken place and but more importantly not to jeopardize legal process and that was very important. A little bit different than some other times when the city had been put in the national media whether it was around the George Floyd protests or in particular when it was around our decisions around COVID-19 and things that put us opposite our state government.

0:40:54.2 SR: That was a little bit different where we had to walk probably a tighter rope, if you will, on that than we did with the riverfront brawl or the Montgomery melee and everything else that social media dubbed it. But it was a very ironic in terms of everything that happened but the healing was not as... Did not really have... It was not as deep as I think most people would think because, I had a number of people across all colors, background, class, cultures, call and say you know what, those guys... And they didn't say those guys, deserve to get their butts kicked and I'm glad that they did. And that wasn't just one...

0:41:38.6 CW: So it did not polarize the city in the way that it could have? 

0:41:41.9 SR: No, not in any way, there was... That's probably one of the best consensus moments in the community, was that they deserved to get what they got and so that was the feedback that I got from many in the community, for sure.

0:42:00.4 CW: Yeah I want to turn to the students but before I do, I wonder if you can comment on one more experience that you've had as mayor and that is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and so many issues that I know you've spoken about in that experience and one of them you just talked about, which was this relationship between local government, state government, and national politics and the way in which the height of the pandemic got so politically polarized and at the end of the day, you're running a city, where there's hospitals, where there's schools, where there's families, where there's grocery stores, where there's all of these infrastructures that have to be managed. Can you talk to us about that experience for you and what it taught you about leadership? 

0:42:50.0 SR: Well, one, there is no manual for how to deal with a pandemic. And so if there was anything that we understood from mayors who had served maybe for one or two terms or even mayors who had termed out, was that they had never seen anything like this. And so a lot of it comes back to your gut instinct and then the team that you have around you to help make your decision, but I think it starts with the person, the leader. And I think from jump, we decided we were going to follow the data, we're gonna make the decision that were in the best interest of our residents and we will let everything else play itself out. So for us, it was really a matter of, what's the science telling us, what's the best approach to this? Certainly pinging the mayor's and other colleagues about things they were doing, whether it was across the state or across the country in their community.

0:43:50.6 SR: But that really was a touch-and-go situation, it was trial by fire and I think you lean back on some of the basic leadership principles that probably all of us have read about or heard about it at some point regardless of our journey, what do you really utilize to make those decisions? What helps you come to decisions in a crisis? And you just really have to trust that and then be willing to navigate and adapt where necessary, and I think that was our approach. We ended up being drawn into the, I guess, national political discourse about that because so much was happening with conservative leaning states taking one position versus mayors of more moderate or progressive cities taking a different position. And again, for us, it didn't get personal with our governor and myself or really that political. It was really more about, look, I'm making the decision over here that I think is right and I'll let the governor and others make the decision they think is right. But this is what we're gonna do in the jurisdiction that I lead. And because of the research we were doing, because of the team we had around us, and I think because of the depth of our argument, we came out really looking as... We were really looking like we one, had the most information, two, that we were making the right decision, and it was the least political.

0:45:24.6 SR: And it wasn't, that's not to say that there weren't people who disagreed where they were supporters of mine or weren't. You got to be ready for that, I think at any level of leadership. But we were grounded in our approach and we felt very confident in our rationale for why we were doing that during COVID. But make no mistake, it was a very tense time for a lot of leaders. Not just mayors, schools superintendents, university presidents, so many people that I spoke with that were in public facing positions really had to deal with this challenge in a way that was really unique. And I want to say this to this audience, listen, there's some things that are just political. I get that. But some things we have found a way to make political, I spoke about it a little while ago around how boring elections really still are, but certainly were. They're still boring.

0:46:25.5 SR: But some things have been made to be political and you have to ask yourself, why is that? You mentioned in my bio that I served on the United States Election Integrity Commission. Well, that's a bipartisan commission that was set up by the Department of Homeland Security, one Republican, one Democrat from every state and territory in the country. Whether it was a Secretary of State and a local election official or what have you. I mean, those conferences were pretty mundane, just really talking about the mechanics of carrying on election. Now that organization, that entity has really been frayed, for lack of a better term. So there's some things that we have to make sure we kind of get back to a sense of normalcy around.

0:47:10.4 SR: And when it comes to public health, that shouldn't be something that's political. That's something that we have to really call out the bs, when it's necessary. And it doesn't matter who it is, that it is that, because again, you may think that your neighbor or your friend understands civics the way you do, they don't. So it's up to the leaders and the subject matter experts to really kind of explain some of that. Whether it be through your own platform on social media, whether it be through a more public facing opportunity that you have. Because COVID-19 really got politicized in a way that I think cost people lives, cost people their lives. And I think it cost us a lot more as regarding the trust around government and just institutions as a whole than it should have.

0:48:01.3 CW: We have really great... Thank you so much for that.

0:48:04.1 SR: Sure.

0:48:04.4 CW: We have questions from Christiana and Kenneth, so take it away.

0:48:09.7 Kenneth: So for your first question, how has the reapportionment of congressional district's response to the Allen v Milligan ruling impacted the electoral terrain in Montgomery and greater Alabama? 

0:48:19.8 SR: Great question. So the reapportionment plans now have drawn a new district in the second congressional district, of which out Montgomery makes up the primary voting block of that district. It's an area that I considered running for, a position I considered running for, but just had too many things that I wanted to finish as mayor to run for Congress. And I actually like to get things done. I don't know that our Congress people really want to get things done or they want to just talk about what needs to be done. But I'm much more of an implementer than I am a talker where that is concerned.

0:48:57.7 SR: More importantly though, I do think it sends a positive message around the country that our hope will not only impact congressional races, but I think will impact state house races, school board races, county and city races as well. So just anytime we can make the process around redistricting fair, I think is better for our democracy. And that is something that, again, given the history of Montgomery and the role Alabama has played in helping this nation really fulfill its true responsibility each and every citizen, I'm glad that that decision came out has impacted Louisiana, they will have to redraw districts, Georgia, other parts of the South as well. And I think we'll see even Ohio and some other states have to do the same thing.

0:49:50.6 Christiana: Thank you for your answer.

0:49:51.9 SR: Sure.

0:49:52.6 Christiana: The next question is... Let me take this off. [chuckle] The next question we have, a lot of us in the audience are public policy students, and you know, we come to the Ford School having to learn about policy agendas. So members of the audience wanted to know, what's your approach in deciding the strategic priorities to cater to in Montgomery? 

0:50:11.4 SR: Say that one more time. What's my approach to...

0:50:13.9 Christiana: Deciding the strategic priorities to cater to in Montgomery? 

0:50:17.4 SR: Sure. I think my approach is one that's people led and driven, what the feedback has been from our residents about what is needed. The unique thing for being the first, it comes with its share of roses, but it also comes with its thorns too. And I think that's important to understand for many of you who will be the first and I'm sure the best in what you decide to do, because it's not always easy because once people see someone that is a change, there are a lot of expectations. There's a lot of immediate gratification that's expected. And it doesn't always happen like that. But for us, it happened very quickly. One was around funding public education. Very, very important. That was at the top of the list for most people. Even though in my city, I don't have any responsibility for... Well, accountability, I guess I should say, for public education, but all the responsibility for it.

0:51:19.6 SR: And I think that's something that has guided me, but really, listening to the people in terms of what they would like to see from their government and what they don't want to see. Both have got really informed us. And I come from the school of thought that's a little bit different than many. Even if I don't know if I had the votes, I'll bring the issue up. One, I want the public to know that I hear you. We're gonna debate this issue and if the ordinance is killed or dies on the floor then you know who's behind that. But we're not gonna play this shell game of never bringing it to you out of some false sense of political solidarity. My thing is, everyone has a vote on our nine member council. I do not have a vote as mayor. Some mayors do depending on the city. But we're gonna bring up these issues so the public can understand where and why we are making decision on that particular policy. And I think that's the best way to be transparent and trustworthy, is to hear what the public is asking you to do and bring it up for a debate and bring it up for a vote. That's the great part of our democracy.

0:52:31.8 CW: Wonderful. Ken, if you have one more? 

0:52:33.6 Kenneth: Yeah. So with the recent assaults on the truthful and critical teachings of American history, how does a city such as Montgomery that plays a pivotal role in racial justice respond in the implementation of education policy and specifically the teaching of American history? 

0:52:47.5 SR: We do more of it. So, we're gonna speak truth to power regardless. We did it when it wasn't an acronym associated with it, we did it when there was far more on line and we'll continue to do that. And I would encourage others, and I think that people are adapting to where this is, to really speak the truth about the history of the country, both good and bad. It's important for all of us to understand that. It doesn't mean that no different than anything else. You have to paint it one way or the other. The truth is what it is. And I was grateful to take a walk around at the campus and see what you all are doing here, at the University of Michigan and whether it be from the art museum and those that are depicted in the art and some of their stories about who they really were. And how they came to some of those positions. And adding that truth too, because it gives us context. And I think as Americans, context is important. So we don't just see things as, you know, a very simplified picture, but we see things as really complicated matters that people were having to wrestle with and deal with so that we understand how to address those similar challenges in our own time.

0:54:11.0 Christiana: Is there an issue, policy or program that you encountered after becoming mayor that you came to see as more important than you did before? 

0:54:19.7 SR: I think, yeah, municipal court reform around fines and fees. I did not understand how that impacted people. I mean, just simple parking tickets, fines around speeding and just how that impacted particular people would ride the poverty line. And why they weren't able to pay those things off. So we have done an audit, we'll release that study, the results of that study here in the upcoming weeks about how we're changing our municipal courts. And again, coming from a different type of court system in the probate courts, I didn't have an understanding of those that were coming into contact with our city through municipal courts and the financial challenges and the ripple effect it had on them. So that has totally given me a different position. And I'll say the one other thing, both are kind of, I guess, law enforcement related.

0:55:12.1 SR: It is really the interaction with our police department and making sure that now we're implementing 21st century policing practices. And I think for a lot of cities, the George Floyd murder highlighted that. For our city, we had had an unarmed black man shot by a white police officer within probably two years of that happening, which had illuminated that issue before. But I think those two issues certainly have been areas that I've kind of gotten more informed about than I was coming in and about how we can provide solutions to address it.

0:55:50.0 CW: Maybe one more question from each.

0:55:51.4 SR: Cool. I'll make it short. You can See.

0:55:54.0 CW: Oh, rapid fire. All right, let's do it.

0:55:54.9 Kenneth: So knowing history is one thing, but doing something about it is something else. And so is there a possibility of passing legislation to establish reparations for black Montgomery residents? And what would reparations possibly look like in Montgomery and Greater Alabama? 

0:56:07.9 SR: No chance in our legislature, we can't even pass a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour because of our legislature. So that's something that... And maybe in some other states they have the opportunity to do. But when we have encountered issues not even near as challenging as that, we've had resistance. And in our state, like a lot of states, your legislature has the majority of the power. That's where home rule really resides. And we've seen the city of Birmingham as well as our ability to tax ourselves and those that were commuters taken away by our legislature since I was elected. And so for us, my mantra is to figure out those things that are really practical and I think that address some of the same underlying issues that we're asking that question.

0:57:01.7 Christiana: I'll ask one last question. You talked a lot today about like the benefits of being mayor as opposed to different levels of government. So what do you think are the limitations of working on a municipal policy level? And do you think there are fewer than the benefits? 

0:57:19.5 SR: Well, I think, you know, listen, I tell people this all the time back home, the government closest to you is the government that impacts you the most. So if there's one critique that I have, and I've said this to my friends in media and national media in particular, is that they don't cover state houses enough. The action right now is not in DC, the action is in your state legislature. It is bill by bill. What's in Michigan is then cut and pasted and replaced with Mississippi. What's in Mississippi is cut and replaced with Missouri. You catch on? So for a lot of things that used to happen at the federal level, bills, legislation isn't moving there. So what's happening is the legislation is moving state by state. And I think that more of you are needed both to help drive policy as well as to help drive outcomes at the state and local level as much as the federal level. Now, ask if you really wanna get things done, it's not sexy.

0:58:22.5 SR: It's not pretty. But that is really where the sausage is being made, is at the local level. And from my aspect, as a person that serves as the first vice president of African American Mayors Association, is on the board of directors for the US Conference of Mayors, which is the largest bipartisan organization for mayors, working with mayors around this country, I think that mayor's probably the best job in politics. It is a place where you are the big ball of shot caller. You are the person that is the thermostat and not the thermometer. You are putting your finger on the scale probably more there than you can in any other position. Now, that's not to say that if you're a council member, if you're a county commissioner, school board member, those aren't important roles.

0:59:09.5 SR: They are very, very important. Even more so now, I think than maybe even just a decade or two ago. But I think at the local level, you are able to drive change much more than you can at a higher level. So it's a matter of where your priorities are. And I think in terms of cost benefit analysis, the benefits at the local level and what type of change you can drive there far outweigh the cost of the time, effort, and energy it takes to get there. So I really encourage those at least to have some start at the local level. And I think when you even look at our more effective policy makers at the national level, most of them have been at the local or state level in some form of their career. If you look at their bio, you hear them talk, they've been elected at the local level, so they understand government and really where it moves. And that's across the board, not related to any one party. So I think it's important that we have top talent like you at that level to really help us drive the change. Because again, that's where the action is. The distraction is in Washington, but the action is in your state housing and your city halls across the country.

1:00:27.0 CW: Wow. As we close, I wonder if you can comment on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. The connection between where you are from, your family's relationship to the Civil Rights Movement, your time at Morehouse College, where King went, how you think about helping to enact a vision that is consistent with King's word. I just wanna lay all of that and just invite...

1:00:58.5 SR: That's a lot.

1:01:00.7 CW: Invite you to plug in where you feel so moved to reflect on King's legacy.

1:01:05.9 SR: So I wear this pin, which is a pin of our city, a flag. It's a pin of our flag, which was adopted after integration orders were issued by the courts. It is basically on the model of the Confederate flag. So I wear it as a reminder of where we have been, but yet where we still have to go. And when I think of Dr. King and I talk about this in the book, I mean, I had the opportunity to be around Mrs. Coretta Scott King several times. One of the things I shared in the book was, probably back in middle school when she came to stay with us on a trip back to Montgomery because she was from the same hometown as my mom and my mom's side of the family, Marion, Alabama. So for me, their words and a lot of the things that I heard and did not appreciate at that time are ever present with me.

1:02:04.2 SR: It's interesting now going back, having gone back to read those books that Dr. King wrote, about Montgomery all the way through, where did we go from here? Chaos of Community in 1967, to look at the books that what he was writing and what he was talking about in particular, toward the end of his life, speaking more about economic injustice, things that, again, that we are still talking about. We gave our sanitation workers, this is case in point, a 19% increase during COVID or right after COVID. They had never had that type of pay increase. And in my remarks, I quoted Dr. King as he was helping those sanitation workers in Memphis. And talk about a dignity of work and talking about why that was so important, regardless if you were a street sweeper or not. And in Montgomery, what I feel the challenge and particularly be a son of the city and have been around so many people, whose names we know, but most people don't, who are part of the bus boycott all the way through that decade of the voting rights movement.

1:03:15.8 SR: Just things they would say and making sure that our city and our state actually live up, again, to its fullest potential and not just talk about it. We make a lot of money off of civil rights tourism. And one of the things that I'll share is, we aren't gonna profit off of those that have gone on and not practice it. And that's hard for my Chamber of Commerce to understand. That's hard for our business community to understand and listen, again, as one who came through Morehouse College for the finance background degree, went to business school, I understand the power and the impact of capitalism in the dollar as well as anyone.

1:04:00.9 SR: But it has to be done with the right lens and it has to be done with a inclusive economy and one that furthers where I believe a 95-year-old Dr. King would be. And I've had the the blessing to be around his colleague, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and Ambassador Young talks about this all the time. Again, as someone who was there someone who was on that balcony in Memphis but someone who was there in Selma and so many other places in Detroit, 1962. He comes to speak here I think what? Hill Auditorium. If I got that right. Here the University of Michigan. And one of his topics was, what does the Negro want? So we can still ask that question now just changing the terminology. And so when you look at his writings it was really just fairness.

1:04:56.2 CW: Yeah.

1:05:00.6 SR: It was really justice really between those two words and through policy and through our approach at City Hall, we've been trying to do that. And we try to model that for other communities to do. And I think that for a city like ours that certainly benefits from the blood, sweat and tears of who I think are some of the most courageous people who've ever walked the soil of this country, to stand in the face of domestic terrorism and state sanctioned segregation each and every day knowing your car, your house, your church could be burned just by walking outside because you were in here at this meeting. Didn't matter your religion or your color just who you affiliated with, there's a lot more for us to do. And I don't apologize for those that wish as mayor that I wouldn't talk about it.

1:05:55.6 SR: And I tell them if you would do it I wouldn't have to talk about it. So just do it. And we'll have less talks and we'll have less meetings around this. But you know, when you win with two thirds of the vote going in, I call that a mandate. And I think that for us it's important to force our city and our state to look itself in the mirror about what have we really done, to be proud of some of Dr. King's work and Reverend Abernathy and Mrs. Parks and Attorney Gray and so many others on the work that they did but also recognize that there's a lot more and I mean a lot more that we have to do around racial justice and economic equality and opportunity just for everyone in our city.

1:06:54.2 SR: And I think then if we would do that, when we talk about Dr. King's beloved community, we will have a better ability to sit up straight and have our chest out about what we have really accomplished. But right now, channeling all of that is something that I do each and every day. It impacts every decision, not one or two. It impacts every decision. It impacts the lens of which I view things not just politically but just through the standpoint of what is fair, what is just and again, what would Dr. King say and what would so many of those foot soldiers say if they had had a black mayor and someone who went to their alma mater, who was a part of their fraternity, who lived in their neighborhood, someone they could talk to very casually, what would be their thoughts? And I shared that with Dr. Bernice King, Reverend King's daughter last year that those are things that kind of impact my decisions. And the fact that our city still isn't where it needs to be is good because we know we've got a challenge and we know we got our work cut out for us to do. But I think that by and large, our community wants to meet that challenge and is committed to doing so even if it makes us uncomfortable.

1:08:13.5 CW: Thank you so much, Mayor Reed. The book is called First, Best: Lessons in Leadership and Legacy from Today's Civil Rights Movement. I encourage you to check out the book. It is wonderful. I encourage you to visit Montgomery, Alabama.

1:08:29.9 SR: Please.

1:08:30.0 CW: It's been so helpful and interesting and exciting to hear about the historical legacy of the city and its contemporary future. It's a city to watch and we're very excited. And I want to thank you personally. This means so so much to me because we knew each other when? 

1:08:50.1 SR: Yes, right.

1:08:52.4 CW: So it's really really great to have you here at the Ford School of Public Policy.

1:08:53.3 SR: Congratulations to you.

1:08:54.4 CW: Thank you.

1:08:55.3 SR: And thank you for your leadership, and thank you for the invitation.

1:08:57.1 CW: Thank you. Thank you. Let's have an applause.

1:09:02.3 SR: Thank you.


1:09:03.6 CW: And on behalf of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, thank you for joining us for this policy talk with Mayor Steven Reed. Thank you again.

1:09:13.4 Christiana: Thank you.