Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched — criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led — this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society.
— W.E.B. Du Bois
Birmingham Mayor William Bell and I go back a ways, as the Southern expression goes. Indeed, we have some history together — not unlike Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, though certainly neither of us has ever challenged the other to a duel. Maybe more like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, as we both lived through the (figurative) blows we’ve exchanged to develop, at the very least, a mutual respect.
Or maybe I should stop grasping at similes and just tell you that the history between the mayor and me goes back to the mid-1990s, when I began reporting and commenting on city government for Black & White. Bell had been on the Birmingham City Council since 1979, and had long been considered the heir apparent to Richard Arrington, Jr., who won election as the city’s first black mayor that same year.
By the time Bell became interim mayor in 1999 — Arrington stepped down three months prior to the end of his fifth and final term, presumably to allow the then-Council president to get used to the seat — I had become a fairly relentless critic of his. I redoubled my criticism as the mayoral campaign began in earnest, and turned it up another notch when Bell was forced into a runoff with Bernard Kincaid, a freshman city councilor. Kincaid won a very close election, and I suppose there’s no getting around the fact that my editorializing played some role in that outcome.
Needless to say, this did not endear me to Mr. Bell. Neither did my subsequently accepting a position in the Kincaid administration. As the new mayor’s spokesman, I was fully immersed in the bitter power struggle between Kincaid and the council Bell continued to lead until 2001. Good times, as they say.
Mayor Bell took the opportunity to remind me of some of this history last week, when we sat down to talk in the small conference room just outside his office (I was there primarily to discuss the city’s plans for commemorating the momentous events of 1963, as you can see here). Since we were not yet officially on the record when he made his comments, I will not write about what he said to me, other than to say that I appreciated it.
I will, however, share some of what I said to him, with the following preface: Without presuming to speak for the mayor, I’ll say from my perspective that our relations began to thaw in 2009. Bell was then in a runoff with attorney Patrick Cooper to fill the unexpired mayoral term of the imprisoned Larry Langford. I called him a couple of weeks before the election to wish him well and let him know that I was telling anyone who asked my opinion that I thought he was by far the better choice. It was a brief but pleasant chat.
The mayor and I have spoken occasionally since then, always in the context of journalist and subject, and he has been unfailingly cordial and accommodating. But as we sat down last week, I felt compelled to make some personal comments before delving into the subject at hand.
In any situation that involves the city and its politics and government, I told the mayor, I find myself obliged to fill more than one role. One, of course, is that of journalist, in which I am obligated to ask questions, offer criticism and follow the light of truth wherever it may lead. Another is that of publisher, in which I am committed to having myself and my company support — and, when appropriate, lead — efforts to define and pursue a progressive civic agenda. A third is that of citizen, in which I am actively engaged in the life of our community on a personal level, taking pride in its accomplishments and being cognizant of its shortcomings.
As all of that relates to 2013, it means that I want the events of next year to honor our uniquely rich Civil Rights history in the most fitting manner possible. I want to see instilled in us an appreciation of where Birmingham is today — of how very far we have traveled on the road of progress, and of the challenges and opportunities that lie before us. I want us to be inspired and renewed, reconciled in a shared vision of what our community is and everything it can be.
As it relates to Mayor Bell himself, I will paraphrase here what I told him last week. There is also a mayoral election in 2013, and barring some sort of political cataclysm, Bell is going to win it. I believe that is a good thing, not least because I think the city will benefit from the stability, but also because I have come to believe that at this point in our history, he might be uniquely well suited to the job that needs to be done.
Finally, whether or not you or I or anyone else likes it, William Bell is our leader at a time when Birmingham has an unprecedented chance to remake itself in the eyes of the world. As such, he needs — and is doing a good deal to prove himself deserving of — our support. And we need him to succeed.
That doesn’t mean that we should not be watchful, should not criticize, should not demand that he hold himself and his administration to the highest standards of integrity and accomplishment. What it does mean is that, now more than ever, Birmingham and the region need strong political leadership — and that it is incumbent upon us as citizens to do our part to make it possible for William Bell to provide it.