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Sometimes it seems like Alabama never changes. It’s been five years since the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down the Voting Rights Act requirement that states must obtain federal approval to change election laws and, as the New York Times reported, Alabama has gone on a tear, enacting “a slew of restrictive laws and policies, many of which disproportionately affect African Americans, Latinos and other marginalized groups.” It’s easy to think that the state where George Wallace touted “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” remains mired in a racist past. “Sometimes you get angry with Alabama,” admits David Bronner, head of Retirement Systems of Alabama, the pension fund for state employees.
But there are bright spots, and one of them is the state capital. A city of about 200,000 people, Montgomery was home to some of the most significant moments of the civil rights movement. It’s where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached at the now-famous Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Rosa Parks launched her bus boycott, where marchers from Selma carried their grievances. “Montgomery has a rich history,” says mayor Todd Strange. “It hasn’t always been a pretty history.”
But Montgomery is confronting its past in order to move forward. This year a local lawyer named Bryan Stevenson, founder of an anti-death penalty group called the Equal Justice Initiative, opened the Legacy Museum, which argues that American slavery has morphed into mass incarceration. It’s a challenging and profound place. Stevenson has also created the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a monument to victims of lynching that is both difficult to experience and essential. These new institutions are pushing Montgomery into a more progressive future while attracting visitors from all over the country and the world.
Led by Strange, a political independent who is stepping down after a decade in the job, Montgomery is also experiencing economic growth and a downtown revival. In the early 2000s, the city landed Hyundai’s only plant in the United States; it employs about 3,000 workers full-time and has an economic impact on the state of about $4.8 billion. An influx of workers from South Korea has also prompted an unexpected Asian influence, helping to diversify the city’s neighborhoods, cuisine and culture.
At about the same time a minor league baseball team came into being—the wonderfully named Montgomery Biscuits (“Batter up!”)—along with a downtown stadium. Subsequent partnerships between the city and private investors have led to a rejuvenation of the landmark Dexter Avenue, one of America’s most historic streets. The Montgomery Internet Exchange positions the city for technological growth and collaboration among the private sector, area universities, government and the military. And the U.S. Air Force’s recent announcement that it will base its new jets, the F-35s, at Montgomery will lead to additional investment and tech leadership.
Hurdles remain, particularly in public education, which is mediocre. As Mayor Strange puts it, Montgomery “is still a work in progress.” But there is progress. “I go back to my neighborhood, I see black and white and Hispanic and Asian playing football or soccer in their front yard,” Strange says. “And that means you’re beginning to arrive.”