“Local assemblies of citizens constitute the strength of free nations. Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it. A nation may establish a system of free government, but without the spirit of municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty.” — Alexis de Tocqueville, Author, “Democracy in America,” 1835
The first line of Randall Woodfin’s official autobiography on his mayoral campaign website is: “I am a proud son of Birmingham.” In our nation’s history, Birmingham, Alabama will forever be tied to some of the most troubling and tragic imagery of the civil rights movement — from the bombing of a church that killed four innocent little girls to African Americans braving fire hoses, police batons and attack dogs in their struggle to end racial discrimination and secure basic rights. While we have yet to wipe out discrimination and its attendant consequences, our nation— including Birmingham — has made some progress. The proud son of a city once tarnished as regressive and hostile to the plight of its African-American residents, will lead its 23 communities and 99 neighborhoods on a progressive platform as its next mayor.
For many, Randall’s win was unlikely for obvious and not so obvious reasons.
Randall suffered a family tragedy during his campaign to unseat William Bell, the seven-year, two-term incumbent. He lost his nephew in a shooting death. And sadly, it was not his first brush with the gun violence plaguing Birmingham. Five years earlier he lost an older brother in a shooting death. Before running for mayor, Randall amassed an impressive resume as a public servant, but his first foray into politics proved unsuccessful, running for a seat on the Birmingham Board of Education in 2009 and losing. As he tells it, in losing, he ended up winning. He won the attention of the community and local stakeholders, and won time to prepare and hone his message for another run in 2013 that would prove successful.
When this former city attorney and board of education president decided to run for mayor, he chose to do so on a progressive platform in a region of our nation not synonymous with progressive politics. Our Revolution, a progressive political organization that works to organize and elect progressive candidates, backed his run, helping to turn out the vote with volunteers, text messages and calls, including calls recorded by Bernie Sanders endorsing Randall’s candidacy. As a Morehouse College alumnus, Randall relied on his close relationship and extensive ties to the Atlanta HBCU. Morehouse alumni held events and fundraisers on his campaign’s behalf and canvassed Birmingham, knocking on doors and getting out Randall’s message.
His ground game plan, coupled with a message, vision and platform for Birmingham that resonated with the residents of the city, led Randall to a commanding victory with 58 percent of the vote, making him, at the age of 36 — coincidentally the same age I was when I was elected mayor of New Orleans — the youngest mayor elected in Birmingham since 1893.
Randall has proposed bold, progressive solutions for Birmingham, including debt-free community college for public high school students, boosting the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, and running a city hall that is inclusive of all people — and he’s not the only one. Randall is part of a growing wave of young leaders in the South, and elsewhere, like Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba Jr. in Jackson, Mississippi, who are determined to turn the tide on national trends and policies that hurt, not help, our communities and cities.
Americans are notorious for not going to the polls to vote when the stakes are less than presidential. But in reality, it is what happens at the local level that has the most everyday impact on your life. The president is not responsible for your local community, you and your locally elected officials are. If you are frustrated by the rhetoric and policies coming from the executive branch, you must remain engaged in local races. The men and women who campaign to run your city, your school board, and your criminal justice system are your voice and your frontline against policies that hurt your community and communities across our nation. The resistance to unfair immigration policy, stagnate minimum wages and a myriad other challenges will not trickle down from the top. The seeds of resistance will be planted at the local level and grow into a movement.
The National Urban League congratulates Randall on his recent win, and supports his vision for a Birmingham that is progressive, thriving, inclusive and allows all its residents to reach their highest potential.