There will never be a winner in the mess that is happening in Montgomery right now.
Let’s get that straight right out of the gate. In this he-said, he-said back-and-forth between a well-known and respected community activist, Charles Lee, and the Mayor of Montgomery, Steven Reed, no one will ever prevail, least of all the citizens of Montgomery.
(And if you’ve somehow missed the ongoing brouhaha in the state capital, I would suggest a little background here reading to catch up.)
It doesn’t matter who you think is right in this debacle. It doesn’t matter if Lee is ultimately charged with crimes (it’s my understanding that Reed filed formal charges against Lee late on Wednesday evening) and convicted. It doesn’t matter if all of this fades away into the background.
The simple fact is this: Two respected Black men, in a town that’s fighting its way forward after decades of racism rule, have engaged in a public fight that has divided a community that can least afford the division.
And over what?
It seems that the only possible answer is politics.
After all, why else would a nearly three-year-old recording be released just a few months prior to a mayoral election? Why else would the recordings wind up in the possession of a rightwing propaganda website that would love nothing more than to help a white Republican snake his way back into power in Alabama’s capital city?
Politics. That’s why.
My initial reaction when I heard that the recording had been released was that someone with an interest in the upcoming mayoral election had learned of Lee’s recording and used it to drive a wedge between Black voters in an effort to get a conservative white mayor back in office. Four days later, I’ve heard nothing that has moved me away from that line of thinking.
(Let me be clear here: I’m not saying Lee was part of this plan past providing the recording, and I’ve heard his claims that he didn’t release the recording and never had possession of the full recording. That last part would carry more weight had Lee not promised on Wednesday night, in a written statement no less, to release the full recording if Reed made certain concessions. So, either he’s obtained the full recording since Monday, when he told everyone during a Facebook Live that he didn’t have it, or he’s had it all along.)
But blame and political maneuvering aside, there’s one big question that has to be answered: Should the recording hurt Reed?
Well, let me ask you this: Did the man lie about anything?
Let’s set aside for a moment all of those edits and the very clear efforts that were made to remove the other side of this conversation from the recording, and we’ll take those recorded words purportedly from Reed at face value. What did he say that was wrong?
That he didn’t need the Black vote that was allegedly threatening to walk away from him if he got a decent percentage of the white vote?
That if he doesn’t take care of white business owners the same as he does Black business owners that the white guys will pack up and leave, taking with them a key economic base upon which the city relies?
That’s true too.
That Montgomery, as a city that’s transforming into a more progressive, more liberal city, has to rely on attracting businesses and investment from outside of the state, and from businesses that also share those progressive values? That Montgomery, with a Black mayor and a Black majority, can’t rely on the descendents of Confederates for financial investment anymore?
Y’all really want to argue with that?
Look, I’ll tell you straight up that I think Reed should absolutely take a hit from this recording. Not because of what he said, but because of how he said it and the fact that he put himself in this very stupid position to begin with.
There were a thousand better ways to get his point across than the way he chose. During a phone interview on Wednesday, Reed admitted as much. And he acknowledged that he never should have been in that position, that he should have walked away from the conversation much sooner.
All of that is true. And the current upheaval is his penance.
But at the same time, we should all recognize that Reed’s comments were a real, even if uncomfortable, truth about life in a midsize southern city that’s transforming from old-school conservative to current-day progressive. From racist white to majority-minority.
(And by the way, you can also stuff the pearl clutching over the “salty language” from Reed in the recording. If you didn’t raise a loud objection to the past six years of Trump’s offensive speech or if you turned a deaf ear to the daily racism of Emory Folmar, sit down. Way in the back.)
The daily reality for the leadership of Montgomery is a delicate balance between ensuring that existing businesses and major business leaders – most of whom are white – remain placated and assured that they will continue to have a seat at the table while at the same time Black entrepreneurs, minority business owners, out-of-state corporations and others all feel as if they are being offered a seat at the same table.
“I live my life trying to convince people that simply because I’m inviting this person to sit at the table that it doesn’t mean we’re taking your seat,” Reed said. “I don’t want to take from anyone. I want to add more seats.”
That is not a philosophy that was conveniently expressed in response to the current crisis. That’s been Reed’s philosophy since he took office. To the chagrin of many liberals, he has often described himself as a capitalist above all else. And he sees economic success as Montgomery’s only pathway out of the troubles it currently finds itself in.
Troubles that years of conservative policies, racist practices and unequal access have created.
You don’t have to love Reed, or even agree with him on a lot of things, to recognize that right now, his approach to leading Montgomery – building a coalition of businesses and business leaders that are pushing the city forwarded in a progressive manner – is the city’s only hope out of its current state. And the economic development success they’ve had in a relatively short period of time is evidence of that.
And that’s probably the biggest shame out of this current ordeal. That it opens the door just a crack to the minority of people in Montgomery who want to go backwards, who believe that cops can abuse and beat their way out of high murder rates, who think decades of school system neglect can be solved by paddling more kids, who think that systemic poverty is somehow caused by skin pigmentation.
So, no, there will be no winners in this current fight. And if people in Montgomery aren’t careful, everyone could wind up a loser.