The Election of Birmingham’s Black Mayor
By Ron Casey
Vol. 2, No. 3, 1979, pp. 11-14
Apparently there were two sets of voices vying- for Officer George Sand’s attention as Birmingham Police Department car 71 pulled into the convenience store lot the night of June 22. The first was that of a White store employee whose co-worker stood inside with a bullet wound in his shoulder. “They’re in there,” Sands would later say he heard the worker yell as he pointed to a dark green Buick on the parking lot. “Look out. They’ve got a shotgun. They shot Mike.” A group of Blacks would later testify they had been standing across the street yelling a different message to Sands: a warning he did not acknowledge.
In plainclothes and with drawn revolver, Sands and his partner began to edge toward the car, commanding its occupant to remain still. As the two officers reached the back door of the vehicle, the passenger lunged suddenly downward into the seat. Sands responded with an almost instantaneous burst of gunfire. Three of his four bullets struck 21 year old Bonita Carter in the back. Later it would be learned that the young Black woman had apparently had nothing to do with the assault on the store employee. She had been an acquaintance of the assailant and had gotten into the car at his request when he ran away.
The shooting awoke racial tensions in Birmingham that had lain dormant for more than a decade. And those tensions would become a double-edged sword that would, on the one hand, cut through the city’s racial past and pave the way for its first Black mayor and, on the other, hound a man of long standing liberal credentials from office.
David Vann, a onetime law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and a Birmingham attorney, had been elected mayor of the city four years before by the narrowest of margins after forming a shaky coalition of liberal Whites and Blacks. That was possible because the city that elected Vann was drastically different from the White supremist steel town of the early 1960s. In the decade since the days of Bull Connor’ White suburban flight had almost equalized the city’s racial make-up and the young, but growing, University of Alabama in Birmingham, with its mammoth medical complex, had replaced U.S. Steel as the city’s largest employer.
Still, when Vann first got word of the Carter incident, he must have sensed its potential for harm. -His liberal reputation did not make him popular with the city’s conservative Whites. He had
been instrumental in filing the suit that brought an end to the decades-old gerrymandering of the Alabama Legislature making “one man – one vote” the law of the land and had also been one of the driving forces behind a change in Birmingham’s form of government that drove the segregationists of the 60s from office.
With the Carter shooting, his strength in the Black community, he must have known, was being blasted away by a hail of gunfire from a policeman’s revolver.
Try as he might, Vann would not be able to find a common ground that would allow him to compromise the issue. On one side were the city’s Black leaders, led by local SCLC President Abraham Woods, who were clamoring for Sand’s dismissal. On the other side were the members of the Birmingham Fraternal Order of Police, the closest thing in Birmingham to a police union. Only a couple of months before, they had called their first strike ever, and after the Carter shooting, they were demanding that Sands be left on the force until a grand jury could look into the matter.
Vann tried his first compromise; Sands would remain on the force while a biracial committee of eight civic and religious leaders held open hearings and took sworn testimony on the matter. In the meantime, Vann also would call for a review of the situation by the police department’s own Firearms Discharge Review Board.
After more than a week of testimony, the ad hoc committee reported it could find no justification for the shooting. The police board, however, voted 5-1 that the shooting was within department policy. Vann again was faced with a dilemma.
Again, he tried a compromise. Sands was within policy so he could not be fired, said Vann. But that was only because the policy was faulty. Vann ordered it changed and also ordered that police officers be given training that would make them less likely to use unnecessary force.
The compromise pleased no one. Blacks were not only irked by the Bonita Carter incident, they were also mindful of the fact that similar incidents had gone largely without resolution in the city’s recent past. Within a week after Vann announced his decision, thousands of demonstrators, led by Woods and SCLC national President Joseph Lowery, converged on Birmingham’s main street for a protest march. It was the largest held in the city since the 1960s. At the end of the march, however, instead of police dogs and fire hoses, the marchers met David Vann who had arranged for
them to have a stage and sound equipment. He marched the last few steps of the demonstration himself singing “We Shall Overcome” with the marchers.
Vann’s conciliatory gesture only caused him more political problems with conservative Whites, who felt he had sold out the police department. And his efforts did him little good with the Blacks. Black leaders announced they would begin a “selective boycott,” saying that certain White business in the city would be affected. The boycott would not end, they said, until Sands was removed from the force. Vann held firm while the boycott plans were being laid. But shortly after Blacks met with representatives of the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce, another curious event transpired. Vann suddenly announced that Sands’ lawyer had sent him a medical report. Sands, said the report, had been affected by all the tremendous strain he had been under and would have to retire from the force indefinitely.
It had taken about 30 days for the coalition that David Vann had been nurturing for four years to be ripped apart. As summer wore into September, and the pack began to gather for the October election, it was becoming clear that for Vann the handwriting was on the wall.
The pack that gathered ranged all the way from the likes of Mohammed Oliver of the Socialist Workers Party to Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Don Black. It also included one of Vann’s longtime allies and the man who probably more than any other had been responsible for shaping the political fortunes that put Vann in office – Dr. Richard Arrington Jr. Four years before, as both Arrington and Vann sat on the City Council, Arrington began to air a series of citizen police brutality charges in open meetings, placing then Mayor George Seibels in the same kind of situation that the Bonita Carter incident would leave Vann facing. Arrington, a Black educator, subsequently endorsed Vann and swung massive Black support his way.
Also in the 1979 race were City Councilman John Katapodis, a Harvard-educated former Birmingham school board employee, Larry Langford, a city councilman and onetime television news reporter, and Frank Parsons, a local attorney and travel agency president.
Despite the racial overtones, it was a relatively lackluster campaign. Of the major candidates, Vann campaigned on his record and Arrington on his eight years experience as a councilman and abilities as an administrator. The only controversy that surfaced concerned an incident that won Parsons the almost unanimous condemnation of the Birmingham media. Speaking before an all-White civic club, Parsons told members words to the effect that Blacks in the city would bloc vote and that Whites had better do the same if they didn’t want to end up with a Black police chief.
That incident would make the run-off election that followed all the more tense. After all the primary ballots had been counted, the city had pretty much voted a racial ticket. Blacks, by and large, voted for Blacks and Whites voted for Whites. Arrington led the ballot with 33 percent of the vote and only a small portion of that coming from Whites. The closest man in the race was Parsons who had only 16.5 percent of the ballots, all White. Vann, who had been armed with a $70,000 campaign arsenal (a good portion of which came from businessmen and leaders in Birmingham’s suburbs) finished a dismal fourth behind Katapodis. Most of Vann’s votes came from the affluent, White Forest Park section of the city and the area around the University of Alabama in Birmingham. The mayor did not carry a single Black box.
During the next three weeks, the campaign between Arrington and Parsons would further polarize the city and draw two former mayors into the contest.
Birmingham has more registered White voters than Blacks (71.259 – 57,301). Parsons knew his best chance to win was with a heavy White turnout.
For Arrington, there was a slightly different
game to be played and, in some ways, a much harder one. That game consisted of: (1) turning out a record Black vote; and (2) at the same time capturing at least 10 percent of the White ballots in a city which had gained a national reputation for its racial prejudice.
But Arrington would have help in his effort. Both the city’s major newspapers endorsed the former college dean and to help overcome the fears of the White business community, Alabama Lt. Gov. George McMillan, a native of the Birmingham area, hosted a luncheon for Arrington which had as its drawing card the appearance of most of the city’s other elected officials. Though Vann would refuse to endorse anyone outright, as the campaign developed, he would make it known that he personally planned to vote for Arrington.
In the Parsons’ camp was former Mayor George Seibels – the man Vann and Arrington had been able to unseat four years before. Seibels took out full-page newspaper advertisements accusing Arrington of racial politics and of playing political football with the Birmingham Police Department. Though the Fraternal Order of Police would not endorse candidates for fear of losing the organization’s tax-exempt status, a group of police wives took out ads supporting Parsons and several hastily-organized “law and order” groups gave Parsons their endorsement.
The effect of the pressure on city voters was evident on election day. Some 68.8 percent of the voters turned out.
Though it was nip and tuck through most of the long night of vote tallying, Arrington finally took the election by a margin of only 2.2 percent. He had won it by turning out massive support in all the city’s Black boxes and by being able to pick up somewhere between 12-15 percent of the Whites vote, a substantial portion of which came from the areas of the city that had supported Vann during the primary.
Two weeks later, after a graceful concession speech by Parsons and calls for unity from Parsons, Seibels and Vann, Richard Arrington Jr. was sworn in as Birmingham’s first Black mayor. Looking out over the crowd in Boutwell Auditorium – named for former Mayor Albert Boutwell who had been in office during much of the racial turmoil of the 60s – Arrington recalled how his father, a sharecropper, had been forced to borrow the money for the bus ticket that brought him to Birmingham and a job in the hot steel mills.
“The story of my parents’ quest for a better quality of life and their faith that it could be found in this valley is the story of many other families who came to Birmingham seeking a better chance,” said Arrington as Parsons, Seibels and Vann looked on from the speakers platform “. . – In this valley they have been able to make a decent living, to educate their children and to watch this valley grow; and for some, like my parents, to see their children attain positions of responsibility they never dreamed of.”
Ron Casey is an editorial writer for the Birmingham News.