Black mayor leads Bull Connor's city into new era

Mayor Richard Arrington Jr. of Birmingham, Ala., defies political tradition. First, he is a black in his second term (and sixth year) as chief executive of a Deep South city with a history of racial violence and discrimination.

To many outside the South, Birmingham is still symbolized by Eugene (Bull) Connor, who as police commissioner in the 1960s ordered the use of fire hoses and dogs to disperse civil-rights marchers.

Second, he is an unorthodox politician, a PhD who taught science at his alma mater, Miles College, for years before getting into politics.

Why did this academician and family man -- with three daughters and five sons -- give up the relatively quiet life of an educator to face the challenges before any black officeseeker in Dixie?

``Expressing my blackness,'' Mayor Arrington says.

He sees his task as helping Birmingham become a progressive city, open to all people, offering economic opportunity through jobs as well as business enterprise, providing cultural and recreational facilities. ``Birmingham is in transition,'' Arrington said in a recent interview in Boston. ``The Birmingham of Bull Connor and the '60s is not the Birmingham of today.''

Arrington's political career began in 1971 when he ran for the Birmingham City Council while teaching at Miles. He won, served two four-year terms, then decided to quit in 1979.

``I just didn't see myself as a full-time politician,'' he said.

A racial incident reversed his intentions. A white policeman, pursuing robbery suspects, fatally shot an unarmed black woman. The officer said he thought she was carrying a shotgun and was one of the robbers.

Black people protested loudly and vehemently. The officer was found to be at fault, but he was retained on the force.

A committee of black ministers and citizens came to Arrington's office and asked him to run, not for reelection to the City Council, but for mayor.

``Let me call my wife,'' he told the delegation.

No one expected Birmingham to elect a black mayor in 1979. Memories of the racial strife of the 1950s and '60s were still vivid. Besides the violence in the streets and mass jailings of blacks, there was the 1962 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Four young girls in the basement Sunday school were killed when the bomb, planted by white extremists, exploded.

Arrington's wife approved of his running.

He won by just 2,000 votes that year but was reelected in 1983 with 60 percent of the total vote -- a record margin.

Virtually all the votes for Arrington in 1979 were cast by blacks. But by 1983, Birmingham's originally skeptical business community supported their black mayor.

``Living in Birmingham is experiencing the reality of a new South,'' Arrington told his audience at a recent meeting in Boston.

``Our city was decaying, suffering the fate of Northern smokestack communities. Heavy industry was retrenching its production lines in our city. Jobs were fewer. We were on our way to becoming another ghost factory town.'' Mayor Arrington and his advisers sought another course. They visited 15 cities to study models for revitalization.

``We were self-conscious in our self-examination,'' he said. ``Birmingham was regarded as a clean city, but it was also a Southern community with racial problems. Bull Connor was part of our history, a symbol of segregation and racial discrimination. Few viewed Birmingham as a city with a new future.''

Although the mayor calls himself a ``foot-stomping Baptist who loves the Gospel,'' he describes his politics as ``laid back.'' At heart, he says, he is a college professor, an educator, a behind-the-scenes activist.

Yet he has hardly appeared laid back. In 1984 he startled black activists when he openly fought the candidacy of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson in the Democratic Party presidential primaries. Birmingham voted 2 to 1 against Mr. Jackson.

This year Arrington has already made another bold move. He has helped revamp Alabama's black Democratic organization, establishing the Alabama New South Coalition, which has replaced the old Alabama Democratic Council.

The new group has already formed task forces to study such issues as teen pregnancy, the need for day care for children, and the quality of high school education in Birmingham.

Typical of interest groups in Birmingham with which the mayor works are the Community Action Committee, an upper-level private-sector group which operates quietly, if not secretly, and the Youth Leadership Forum, a citywide youth interest group.

Arrington has not yet indicated whether he will seek a third term as mayor. But before his current term ends he may see the climax of a $23 million expansion of Birmingham's historical and cultural museums. Plans include the opening of a new Civil Rights Museum in 1988.

``This is part of our drive to remember the heritage of Birmingham,'' he said, ``although it is only 114 years old. The city is providing $10 million for museum expansion. The private sector is raising the other $13 million.''

Probably Arrington's greatest achievement has been leading his traditionally blue-collar, smokestack city into a service economy, bulwarked by white-collar employees, many of whom are blacks. Only a few years ago, Southern blacks were generally excluded from the kinds of jobs available to them in Birmingham today.

``The mayor is our best ambassador,'' says Stewart Dansby, manager of public affairs for the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce.

``We see him not as a black mayor. He's a catalyst. We didn't support the mayor when he first took office. We were skeptical. Since then he has developed a good sense of balance for the city -- seeking economic soundness and stability.''

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