Bull Connor, R.I.P.—Birmingham Elects a Black Scholar to Run the City
"I asked people to look beyond color, to look at the qualifications of the candidates and vote accordingly," says Arrington, 45, a sharecropper's son who earned a University of Oklahoma Ph.D. in biology. After two terms as a part-time city councilman—his full-time job was running a consortium of black colleges—Arrington was familiar to Birmingham voters. Even so, the electorate split along racial lines in the October 30 run-off between Arrington and his white opponent, Frank Parsons. Arrington needed the overwhelming support of a few liberal white neighborhoods to squeeze by.
The election stirred up reminders of Birmingham's unhappy past. Racial slurs marred the campaign, and—although Parsons disavowed them—some Arrington opponents bought ads to warn that a black mayor would raise the city's crime rate. Parsons himself told a crowd of whites that if they failed to vote, they could wind up with both a black mayor and a black police chief. (That was untrue: The present police chief is white and protected by civil service.) Some white citizens are still not entirely comfortable with their new mayor. As one grudging admirer put it: "The only thing I don't like about him is that he's black."
Richard Arrington has seen that kind of prejudice before—and conquered it. Born in rural Sumter County, Ala., he came to Birmingham at age 5 when his father took a steel mill job. (The new mayor admires his dad so much he calls himself Richard Arrington Jr., though their middle names are different.) "We lived in a totally segregated society," the son remembers. "It didn't bother me at the time. But when I went away to school and had to compete in a white system, I felt I had the weight of the whole black race on my shoulders." Returning to Birmingham after his doctoral studies, he stayed on the fringes of the fight against segregation. "I was in Birmingham during the civil rights movement, but I am ashamed to say I was a passive participant," he admits. "I drafted statements for local leadership and I was a leading negotiator, but I, like a lot of other middle-class blacks, was not on the streets."
Arrington was married to the former Rachel Reynolds four years ago. "It was an office romance," she laughs, "but Richard didn't marry his secretary." They have six children from previous marriages and a 2-year-old of their own. No sooner had his election been confirmed than President Carter called, and Teddy Kennedy did so shortly thereafter. Arrington is of course endorsing nobody at this point. "I want to be mayor of all the people," he vows. "This is my way of paying my political dues."