Arrington, Richard 1934–
Richard Arrington 1934–
Mayor of Birmingham
A bookish professor of zoology training, Richard Arrington became the first black mayor of the great Southern industrial center of Birmingham, Alabama. Reaping the rewards that came from having brought political representation to African Americans in one of the Deep South’s most racially divided cities, he built a powerhouse of a politcal organisation. Arrington vastly increased the participation of blacks at all levels of the city government, and at the height of his career wielded considerable influence in regional and national politics. Several times over his five terms in office he ran into trouble with allegations of corruption, but he consistently maintained that he had been the victim of selective targeting because of his race.
Arrington was born into a sharecropper family on October 19, 1934, in Livingston, Alabama, near the Mississippi border, but grew up and attended public schools in Fairfield, near Birmingham. He attended Birmingham’s historically black Miles College, majoring in science and graduating in 1955. An honors student, he went north for a Master’s program at the University of Detroit at a time when the number of blacks working toward post-graduate degrees was extremely small. Arrington received an M.S. degree in 1957, and then decided to return to his alma mater to teach. He was part of the biology faculty and later a counselor, remaining at Miles until 1963, when he enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Oklahoma.
Winning a university award for outstanding work in biology, Arrington received his doctorate in 1966, and once again returned to Miles College. This time he was part of the administration, serving as an academic dean until 1970. He then took a position as executive director of the Alabama Center for Higher Education, a consortium of the state’s eight historically black institutions of higher education, and remained in that post until 1979. But in the early 1970s he was drawn into his second career, one with a much higher profile.
Birmingham’s name lived in infamy for much of the 1960s due to the abuses the city’s police department dealt out to civil rights demonstrators; those abuses themselves formed only one chapter in a long history of
At a Glance…
Born October 19, 1934, in Livingston, Alabama; son of a sharecropper. Married; five children. Education: graduated from high school, Fairfield, Alabama; A.B., Mi les Col lege, Birmingham, Alabama, 1955; M.S., University of Detroit, 1957; Ph.D., University of Oklahoma, 1966.
Career: Former mayor of Birmingham, Alabama. Professor of biology, Miles College, 1957-63; academic dean, Miles College, 1967-70; executive director, Alabama Center for Higher Education, 1970-79; served two terms on Birmingham city council, 1971-79; elected mayor of Birmingham, 1979; re-elected four times; resigned before end of fifth term, 1999.
Awards: Ortenburger Award for Outstanding Work in Biology, University of Oklahoma, 1966; Man of the Year, Birmingham, 1979; numerous educational and community service awards.
Addresses: c/o City of Birmingham, 710 20th St. N., Birmingham, AL 35203.
tension between Birmingham’s city government and its large black population, drawn to the city decades before by opportunities at the city’s numerous steel mills. Bombings by terrorist elements of the city’s white population were so common that one predominantly black area bore the chilling nickname of “Dynamite Hill,” and things came to a head in 1963 with the tragic bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, in which four young girls were killed.
The split between the races in Birmingham has never fully healed, but the atmosphere began to improve when African Americans began to exercise their newly guaranteed right to vote; the city council’s first African American member was elected in 1968. Arrington, with his already distinguished administrative record, emerged naturally as part of the city’s new black political leadership, and he soon ascended to the council himself, winning four-year terms in 1971 and 1975. The Birmingham mayor’s office, however, remained in white hands.
That changed when Arrington ran for mayor in 1979. His opponent was a conservative white lawyer named Frank Parsons, and the contest was breathtakingly close, with the two candidates exchanging the lead several times on election night (October 30) as the returns came in from different parts of the city. Arrington eked out a close victory, with about 10 percent of the city’s white electorate crossing racial lines to support his candidacy.
“My being elected to office was very important to the city,” Arrington recalled in a 1999 interview with Jet magazine. “It made all out citizens feel a part of it.” Indeed, among Arrington’s most important accomplishments during his five terms as mayor were his integration of the city payroll (blacks held 50 percent of city jobs by the mid-1990s), and above all a set of measures designed to lower tensions between the city’s African-American residents and its public safety officers; black representation increased sharply in both the police and fire departments. By 1995, when Arrington ran for his last term, he had named 23 of the city’s 24 department heads; 12 were black and 12 were white.
A member of numerous community organizations, Arrington also enjoyed harmonious relations with Birmingham’s business community. While other American industrial cities suffered badly during the 1980s, especially those where steelmaking was an important component of the local economy, Birmingham flourished under Arrington, shedding its smokestack image and becoming a regional center for banking and health care. By 1995 the city enjoyed an expanded tax base and a budget that was both growing and balanced.
As he racked up victory after victory, Arrington became a powerful figure in Birmingham, and even political candidates from beyond Alabama found it necessary to court his favor. His power rested on a well-oiled grassroots political organization, the Jefferson County Citizens Coalition; critics called it a machine. After the euphoria of the transfer of power to Birmingham’s black majority had worn off, allegations began to surface, from both white and black observers, that an atmosphere of cronyism flourished in the Arrington administration, which held an iron grip over city contract work.
The most serious crisis connected with investigations into the activities of Arrington’s circle came in 1992, when an Atlanta architect claimed that Arrington had accepted a $5,000 kickback in exchange for preference in the awarding of a city building contract. Arrington attacked the ensuing federal judicial inquiry as racially motivated, and when he refused to turn over city records pertaining to the case, he was jailed for a night. Draped in symbolic chains, Arrington led supporters in a march beginning at the 16th Street Baptist Church as he prepared to turn himself in. He eventually relented and turned over the records, and the incident barely nicked his popularity; like Detroit mayor Coleman Young, Arrington was always subject to close scrutiny from law enforcement agencies, but emerged personally and politically unscathed. He cruised to re-election in 1995.
In 1999, Arrington announced plans to write a book, and stepped down just before the end of his fifth term so that his hand-picked successor, William Bell, could run as an incumbent in the mayoral election that year. During the campaign, controversy swirled around the claim that the city government had grossly overpaid an Arrington friend for a parcel of land, and Bell’s opponent, Bernard Kincaid, scored an upset victory. The city council, still in the hands of Arrington loyalists, moved to restrict Kincaid’s powers, and one council representative, quoted in the New York Times, offered the ironic justification that “… we had a king for all those years [and] I’m not the least bit interested in having another one.” Though he may have become somewhat monarchical over his years in power, Richard Arrington was a leader who brought about and oversaw fundamental change in a city at the center of America’s racial divide.
Hawkins, Walter L., African American Biographies: Profiles of 558 Curren Men and Women, McFarland & Company, 1992.
Henderson, Ashyia N., and Shirelle Phelps, eds., Who’s Who Among African Americans, 12th ed., Gale, 1999.
Jet, November 6, 1995, p. 4; November 4, 1996, p. 20; August 2, 1999, p. 33.
New York Times, December 18, 1999, p. A12.
Time, February 3, 1992, p. 24.
—James M. Manheim
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