‘No Straight Lines’ Montgomery Mayor Steven L. Reed Talks About His Memoir and Leadership in a Changing South

In’s latest ‘Conversation With the Mayor’ Reed shares his vision for the future of Montgomery, ‘the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.’

It wasn’t Mayor Steven L. Reed’s original intention to dedicate his life to public service.

A graduate of Morehouse College and Vanderbilt University, Reed worked in the financial sector as an analyst. Eventually, his political aspirations led him to change careers and become a lobbyist in the Alabama legislature where he worked for Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr.

Officially beginning his political career In 2012, Reed was elected Alabama’s first African American and youngest probate judge where he also was the state’s first in that position to grant same-sex marriage licenses following the Supreme Court ruling in 2015.

He made history again in November 2019 when he was sworn in as the 57th Mayor of the City of Montgomery, Ala., becoming the first African American to hold the office.

In his stewardship of the “birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement,” his administration has increased funding for Montgomery’s public schools for the first time in almost 30 years, restructured the city government to increase efficiency and effectiveness, and announced a strategic “plan to reinvest $50 million in Montgomery neighborhoods, community centers, public safety infrastructure, and public transportation.”  

His memoir, First, Best: Lessons in Leadership and Legacy from Today's Civil Rights Movement was released in October and it explores his meteoric rise as mayor and how leadership lessons he’s learned as a political leader in Alabama. spoke with Reed about his new book, giving leadership in the aftermath of the Riverboat Brawl, and how the Democratic Party can position itself for success in the 2024 elections. At this stage of your career, what led you to write the book?

Reed: It was not my idea to write a book, I was approached about writing the book but I never thought that my story would be interesting to others. It's something that I'm glad that I did because it made me reflect on many things that I took for granted and didn’t fully understand the impact that it had on me. I also wanted to make sure that Black boys and girls saw a positive story about someone who was given strong principles by my father and mother that helped me get to this point professionally. 

Of course, there were some hiccups and bumps along the way. I wanted to make sure that a current or future leader, regardless of their age,  might see just a glimpse of themselves in my story.  When it comes to success, there are no straight lines. There are zigs and zags that you have to be able to kind of roll with that. Speaking of your parents, your father, Joe L. Reed is a Civil Rights hero in Montgomery. Throughout the book, you talk about his influence. How did he respond to the book?

Reed: I think because my father came up through more challenging circumstances than I did and for him to ascend in politics like he did in the post-Civil Rights Movement is extraordinary. I've told him that he needs to tell his story because he's got so many lessons for all of us to learn from. During my first inauguration, I shared some of the principles that he passed on to us and lo and behold, more people were asking me for what my dad said than my speech. I was like, “I've been working on this speech for two or three months, and everybody just kind of wants to know about his life” [Laughs].  He was excited to see the book come to fruition. Can you give your definition of the New Civil Rights Movement?

Reed: The New Civil Rights Movement, for me, is the post-Obama era. It’s the movement that came along with the rise of Black Lives Matter after the killing of Michael Brown and several others, that speaks to where we are in the moment of having a level of political power that we haven't had before. However, we are still fighting for those things that folks decades ago had to fight for. 

Recently, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and will talk about Rosa Parks, Fred Gray, E.D. Nixon, and all of the folks who led the charge. But we'll also talk about those young teenagers who protested before Ms. Parks like Claudette Colvin and others who are unsung heroes. But yet here we are at this moment in Montgomery with a Black mayor, a Black Sheriff, Black legislators, and Black business leaders and we are still fighting for the Voting Rights Act. We’re still pushing for issues like affirmative action. There are more attacks on corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion. So this movement, not only is around policy and laws, but it's also around income inequality, health disparities, and education inequities that remain As mayor, one of the recent challenges you encountered was the Riverboat brawl which went viral. I’m sure your leadership was tested in new ways. What did you learn about yourself and Montgomery in the aftermath?

Reed: I think COVID prepared me for just about everything. On top of that, the way we dealt with the reaction to the murder of George Floyd because we were the only major city in Alabama not to have any property destroyed as a result of those protests. A large part of that goes to our grassroots leaders who were helpful. So with the riverboat incident, it did not reach that high level of anxiety for me because, thankfully, nobody was killed.

I think that people felt the bullies got what was coming to them and that doesn't usually happen. As a mayor who is sensitive to racial violence and understands the history of racial violence in this country, it was important to me that we went through the incident with a fine-toothed comb. I think being slow and methodical about it, but also being forthright with the public, assisted us in that situation. I think that approach turned out to be the best one that we could take. Now, the legal process is working on the rest.

Poll Shows Black Voter Frustration With Democratic Party

BET:com: How challenging is it to be a Black progressive leader in the Deep South?

Reed: It’s very challenging. The South can be conservative in a lot of ways and as we look to be more progressive in our approach, it’s about leading with faith and not fear. We have to make sure that we don't just quote the Scripture, but that we live them like those civil rights giants who came before us. We have to be willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the next generation. 

BET:com: Lastly, in the last election, several democratic candidates won race campaigns on reproductive rights. What issues or messaging do you believe that Democrats must employ to continue their momentum in 2023?

Reed: I think the Democrats have to do more to engage Black men. We have to be very clear in our conversation about what the Biden administration has done that has helped Black men. I'm disturbed that so many Black men feel some attraction to Donald Trump. It bothered me in the 2020 race when I saw how many Black men voted for Trump.  

I think there's this false sense of masculinity that we have bought into that has put us in a deficit, if you will, politically. The Democratic Party has to acknowledge that and then be proactive in addressing that through political platforms, social media influencers, grassroots organizers, but also through messaging to show the difference between what President Biden and Vice President Harris have done, versus what President Trump and Vice President Pence did. 

The Democratic Party certainly has to speak to what's at stake with the Republican agenda but we also have to remind those who have seen a level of attraction to Trump about the danger of his policies, and the impact of his words and actions.

First, Best: Lessons in Leadership and Legacy from Today's Civil Rights Movement (Penguin Random House, $28) is available in bookstores and online.

Editor’s Note: This article has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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