On the night of May 31st, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin sat in his office in City Hall, watching on social media as a crowd of protestors gathered one block away. Six days earlier, George Floyd had been killed by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin — some have called it a modern-day lynching — and Woodfin had known that it would only be a matter of time before the peaceful protests and less-peaceful uprisings that had erupted in other towns took hold of his own Alabama city. He also knew only too well how Birmingham had handled such things in the past.
Eugene “Bull” Connor had worked in this very building as the Commissioner of Public Safety back in 1961, when he decided that the best way to ensure the protection and welfare of the citizens was to have the police stand down and allow Klansmen to beat Freedom Riders without intervention. The building remained the seat of Connor’s power when, in 1963, he ordered the use of fire hoses and attack dogs on students protesting segregation and job discrimination, leading to infamous scenes of human savagery and to the arrests of 959 children in one day — as much of the world looked on in horror in graphic news reports.
Now, outside the imposing walls of Birmingham City Hall, the legacy of all that hate was again threatening the city’s equilibrium, only this time, it was Woodfin’s responsibility to figure out what, if anything, to do about it. At one end of Linn Park, a grassy area named for a Confederate officer and flanking City Hall, an obelisk known as the Confederate Sailors and Soldiers Monument — built in 1905 despite the fact that Birmingham hadn’t even existed during the Civil War — had become a focal point for the protesters. When Woodfin’s predecessor had surrounded it with plywood after the racially-motivated violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Alabama’s Attorney General had invoked the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, and slapped the city with a $25,000 fine. Before coronavirus interfered and ended their session, state lawmakers had been trying to double down and increase the punishment for meddling with the monument to $10,000 per day.
Woodfin grew up in Birmingham, in a neighborhood rough enough that he credits his move away from it at age 11 with setting him on an entirely different trajectory than that of his older brother, who was shot and killed during a drug deal in 2012. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, the same alma mater as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other black men who had gone on to greatness, where he majored in political science. After working in student government, at age 21, he set his sights on becoming the mayor of his hometown, a heavily-Democratic city in a heavily-Republican state — or as Woodfin puts it, “a blueberry in tomato soup.” He interned with Congressman Earl Hilliard Sr., and then just showed up at City Hall one day, asking for a job. “I didn’t know anybody, didn’t know a soul,” Woodfin admits. “But I was eager and hungry.” He got hired at the Division of Youth Services. After attending law school, he worked as a criminal prosecutor, a community organizer, and President of the Birmingham City Board of Education. He announced his run for mayor 12 months before the election — “people didn’t know who I was, so my runway had to be longer than three months” — and wore a hole in his leather loafers going door-to-door campaigning. Beating out a two-term incumbent in a state without mayoral term limits, Woodfin, now 39, became the first “Millennial Mayor” of Birmingham, its youngest in more than 120 years, and its most progressive — probably of all time. He even received an endorsement from Bernie Sanders.
From Woodfin’s office, the Confederate monument stood almost visible through the trees. Just before 9 p.m., as reports came in that the driver of a Ford F150 was endeavoring to pull it down with a rope, the mayor started making his way out of City Hall and into the crowd of protesters. He did not have a plan of what he was going to say or do. “But I went into the crowd; because I sympathize with why they were doing what they were doing,” he says. “I also walked into that crowd knowing that what they were doing was dangerous, that somebody could get hurt, somebody could be arrested. ‘Please stop, this is dangerous. I don’t want anybody to get arrested.’ That’s literally what my frame was. That frame didn’t work. They got a little wily on me. So, then I was like, OK, what can I do? Take it down.”
Behind a mask and a megaphone, Woodfin asked protesters to give him until midday Tuesday to have the monument removed — a promise he kept with the help of an outpouring of donations to cover the Attorney General’s fine and to offset the cost of removal, for which the City of Birmingham was charged $1. As residents watched and cheered, the monument was disassembled in pieces and taken to an undisclosed location. Its removal was a powerful symbol toward racial reconciliation in a city that’s very name is often synonymous with racial strife. But as Woodfin knows, symbolism isn’t the same as real change. Rolling Stone spoke with him about meaning of the moment we’re in and the long road ahead.
Rolling Stone: So let’s talk about what’s happened in the past few weeks. When did you first hear the name George Floyd?
Mayor Randall Woodfin: I remember how it felt. In the moment, I’m going back to every time I’ve been pulled over by an officer — and I’ve been pulled over more than 20 times since I was a teenager. Driving while black is a real thing. Being profiled is a real thing.
I got to a point where I knew what to do before the police came. I knew to turn my car off, put my car in park. I knew to have the window down before the officer got there. I knew to have my wallet already out, so I don’t move when they get to the car. I knew to have my radio off and my hands on the steering wheel. And a portion of that [knowledge] was from conversations with my own mom, so when [Floyd] called his mom out, all I could think was, “Damn.” It’s a grown man calling for his mom. It’s just so wrong on so many levels.
Talking to you, I’m reliving the emotions I felt that Tuesday. Hurt. Pain. Anger. Fear. Sadness. I feel them now describing it to you.
It’s hard to think about that video and not have a really visceral reaction to it. I didn’t make it through the whole thing the first time.
It’s too tough.
Did you anticipate what might happen here in Birmingham?
Yeah. People are like, “What the hell do Confederate statues have to do George Floyd’s death?” And I’m like, “Damn.” That’s when you realize people really don’t understand systemic racism. Confederate statues are acknowledging and celebrating systemic racism in the form of relegating black people to being property and slaves, and if people can’t tie those two things together, then the intention — the intentionality around putting these statues up well past the end of the Civil War — yielded the result they wanted them to, which is revisionist history. It’s almost like an inception. You’re recreating something, and then people believe in it, like these statues are OK. They’re not OK. They are a symbol of systemic racism.
I grew up [in Alabama], and I was taught — not just by my teacher, but it was in our textbooks — that the Civil War was not about slavery, it was about States’ Rights. I don’t know if they still have the audacity to teach that.
I don’t know if you can hear my voice kind of shaking, but it makes me so angry to think about how I was essentially brainwashed with misinformation by people who would purport to not be racist people but who were telling lies about what had happened in our history that allowed a message of hate to propagate.
The Daughters of the Confederacy did an amazing job of that brainwashing. People think what they did was isolated to [installing] Confederate monuments in public squares, parks, and state capitals in the South. That actually was the low end of what they did. The high end of what they did was engage school systems. And it became a part of the curriculum. That is a fact. The brainwashing was intentionally designed, methodically laid out, and executed. And it’s actually in history books.
The Alabama Archives organization just acknowledged [two days ago] how wrong that was, that black Alabamians were intentionally left out of the history of the state.
Surely they’re not still using these textbooks in the Birmingham public school system?
No, but it’s embedded in code. It’s embedded in what we do, too. You get pulled over by a State Trooper right now, you pay attention to the uniform, but you don’t pay attention to the insignia that’s here. [motions to his sleeve] The rebel flag is right here on the State Trooper’s insignia, and it’s on their vehicle. That’s happening right now in 2020. It’s still in the flag, and it’s still being worn by sworn officers of the state. There’s a long way to go.
A part of me feels that, in America, to get people’s attention, you have to destroy property. It’s such a capitalist place, so that’s how you get people’s attention. You break shit. I’m not saying that I relish riots, but I definitely understood where people were coming from and why they were doing what they were doing. Did a part of you understand that?
No, I only understood the statue. Breaking glass, trying to burn buildings just because? I don’t agree with that. And here’s why: Based on being a middle child, based on being a lawyer, based on being a community person, I know that extremes don’t work when you want to get things solved. You just want to make noise and destroy stuff? Cool. But if you want to solve things, you got to talk to people. Hell, I want change, too. I want reform, too. You don’t have to fight me. I want to join you.
But I don’t need the Alabama Power building to burn. First of all, it is millions to billions of dollars [lost] if it does burn down. Second of all, what about all those jobs? There’s no world where I can accept just tearing shit up. Statue? I’m with you. I got you. I totally understand. Our city doesn’t deserve any more civil unrest, and this is the morally right thing to do. Hell, I want it down, too. Damn that statue.
So, how’d you finally logistically get it down? How much did they charge you?
Well, technically they charged us a dollar, because we got a lot of people to pay for it. The number of texts and emails and calls that came in that said, “You’re doing the right thing. How can I help?” “You’re doing the right thing; I want to help pay the fine.” “You’re doing the right thing; we’re going to start a GoFund me.” “You’re doing the right thing; we have a company that wants to help move it.” All day. All day. All day. Now, was there some stuff sprinkled in there with calls to our office calling me a spic and a nigger? That was real. We had to step security up. The team took it serious enough. But overall, we did the right thing.
You were getting death threats?
I got one extreme death threat on the phone, and they went in and arrested that guy. It was a very weird few days. But we made it through. And if you asked me what I take the most pride in, it’s the community’s response to all of this. That Monday morning, there was rows of volunteers cleaning up glass across downtown. Helping small business owners board up their windows. Companies offering free glass. We created a fund in partnership with various organizations and nonprofits to assist small business owners who didn’t have commercial insurance. Artists came and started painting murals on the covered-up boards. “We love Birmingham.” “We are one.” “Black Lives Matter.” “The world is watching.” These murals are dope.
Do you mind me asking if you have a recollection of the first time that you realized that there was systemic racism and felt it personally?
Well, I can separate the two. First time I realized there was racism, I had to be about 10, and a white kid called me a nigger. My parents had just divorced, and my dad had moved to an apartment complex, and I just remember being outside playing with my sister and my cousin. I don’t remember what happened. I just remember him calling us niggers. I remember my cousin being really mad. I didn’t say anything, but I remember my reaction to it. I was like, “Well, damn.”
Systemic racism? It’s one thing to read about it in high school; it’s one thing to study it as a political science major in college. But it’s a different thing when you’re with the Congressman [Hilliard], and you’re seeing these issues in the Black Belt. Before the Affordable Care Act, you see that black people don’t have access to healthcare. People my age don’t have teeth. People don’t have access to a primary doctor. Infant mortality rate. The 7th Congressional District is the third poorest federal congressional district in the entire nation. I mean, what, there’s 435 of them? We’re the third poorest. You don’t call it systemic racism when you’re 19 and 20, but you see it when you’re driving through that district. You see no access; you see no resources; you see the result that hangs over generations. I’m just 19 or 20, but I’m processing it. Alabama is the poster child of systemic racism in America. It’s unfortunate. That’s the first time I saw it.
I was listening to NPR on the way here, and Nikole Hannah-Jones was advocating for reparations, saying, “If we really want to solve hundreds of years of inequities, this is what has to happen.” I know that that’s a very controversial topic.
Basically she was saying that economists have hypothesized that $100,000 to $170,000 for each descendent of an enslaved person could potentially create a more equitable society and undo some of the issues that have led to incredible wealth gaps in the country. Is that something you think about? How would Birmingham be different if these inequities weren’t so pervasive in our society?
The quality of life of all 99 neighborhoods would be totally different. The property value in the 99 neighborhoods would be totally different: It would be higher. The illiteracy rate would be lower. The unemployment number would be lower. The number of children that finish high school or college would be higher. Crime would be lower. I can go on and on. Here’s the point. From a historical standpoint, we are extremely delayed on 40 acres and a mule.
The whole notion that it’s 2020 and black people are equal, and they have equal opportunity? It’s just not true. We know red lining exists as late as the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, and we know the Community Reinvestment Act doesn’t do its fair share of what it’s supposed to do as far as neighborhood and community revitalization. We know Native Americans got reparations. We know the Japanese, those in internment camps, received a form of reparations, right? America has never paid for what it’s done with black people.
Let’s say there’s a track. Here are black people on this track, white people on this track. Before the gun goes off, you realize that the black person, their hands are tied, their legs are tied, and there is a bandana around their eyes. Gun goes off, white racer is lapping around, laps at least four times before the ropes around the feet of the black race are cut. So, what’s that? Maybe 1865. Maybe. But hands still tied, still can’t see.
They get around the track, but they’ve already been lapped. Now what? Nine times. They cut their hands. What is it now? 1968. So, what’s that? 100 years later? And then, they finally cut their blindfold off in 2020 in the form of more police reform, in the form of the conversation making its way to the C-suite and the boardroom. Look how many times we’ve been lapped! You can’t say it’s equal opportunity to catch up. It’s humanly impossible. It’s physically impossible. We’ve been lapped so many times, you can’t have a realistic expectation that it’s an even playing field. That’s just not true.
What do you say to people who look to you and are like, “Well, he’s done OK”?
Yeah, well, don’t look at the titles. Take the Native Americans: It’s not looking to one Native American chief, it’s looking to a whole group of people whose land was taken from them, who were systematically slaughtered and killed. Black people have been systematically owned as property, three-fifths of a person, a person, but a person in chains. I’m moving through a system as an individual but collectively as a race. The government actively participated in systemic racism, and the government’s paid out twice to two other groups. I think it’s past time.
What are the challenges of being, as you put it, a “blueberry in the tomato soup,” a progressive mayor in a Republican state?
The number one challenge is you don’t have home rule, so I am dependent on Montgomery in the form of certain laws I need to happen, or worse, certain laws they create that are harmful to us because we don’t agree with them or they go against some basic decency of human and civil rights that we believe in. The more restrictive laws that came up about a year and a half ago where they took away women’s rights? That hurts not just the human element of telling a woman what she can or can’t do if she’s been raped — that’s not a decision that I should be making as an elected official — but it hurts with economic development. If UAB is a Top 10 hospital in the nation and you want to recruit the best talent, what doctor is going to come here, let alone move his family here?
Another way it hurts is when we want to do progressive things, and the legislators come and slap us on the hand and say, “No, we can’t because we don’t have home rule.” So, those are some of the challenges.
Every mayor in all 169 cities in the state of Alabama, every mayor across the nation, every governor across all 50 states, and even the President of United States, in all of our roles as executives, you strip away everything, we’re responsible for two things: public safety and public infrastructure. And deeply embedded in that public safety is healthcare. Are we trying to save lives or not?
Laws shouldn’t be created fighting against Medicaid and Medicare. It’s stupid. Doesn’t make sense. Fundamentally doesn’t make sense. You need Alabamians to live. If you’re so concerned about the economy, if you’re so concerned about economic growth, if you’re so concerned about job numbers: Well, sick people are not going to work, and people can’t go to work if they’re dead. If people don’t have access to healthcare, then what the hell are we talking about?
Looking at the state of the country, the state of Birmingham, are you hopeful?
I’m always hopeful. Is there an opportunity to turn a moment into a movement? It depends. There is no current leader, so as mayor, there is no leader I can sit across from and negotiate terms and demands as it relates to things you want to see get better based on George Floyd being killed in the way he was killed. It’s not enough to just tear down a statute. That’s symbolism. It’s not enough to just paint “Black Lives Matter.” That’s symbolism.
You want to fight systemic racism, you want to punch three things: You want to fight generational poverty; you want to give people the opportunity to go to college because opportunity is lacking; and you want to make sure they don’t get into debt. Those are high-level things we talk about, and prior to George Floyd’s death, we were already putting in the work.
A lot of your platform is built on the idea of negotiation, being an outsider, being able to work with other people to get things done. How hard is it, though, to bring people to the table to negotiate when we know that there’s privilege hoarding in this country, when we know that there are people who don’t really want things to change right now because they’re working for them? How do you get those people to negotiate?
Here’s the deal. You want to move the needle? I think it’s as simple as the analogy of a personal relationship. Let’s say there’s a couple, and one always avoids conflict — doesn’t want to address the issue — and the other one wants to only fight. So, both people’s styles don’t work. One style: You have to embrace addressing the issue, so you have to get uncomfortable. The other person has to realize everything can’t be a fight, every moment you just can’t smash and burn. The CEO, the board chairman or chairwoman and their board members, as well as all those on the ground level — white employees and the black employees — all have to embrace the uncomfortable, tough, hard conversation of systemic racism. If you push through, you’ll be better, you’ll be healthier, you’ll be stronger.
But it’s hard. It was hard before George Floyd’s death. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, it’s also hard, and it will be hard a year from May 25th, 2020. You have to embrace the delayed gratification.