The past decade has been a crash course in the limits of political “firsts.” Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, cast himself as the personification of hope, a balm for a nation scarred by racism. He was convincing because he believed it himself: His faith in the fundamental goodwill of most white Americans and understanding that, for many black ones, he heralded a degree of power few thought they’d see wielded by one of their own, made his vision of a future marked by unprecedented national unity hard to resist. But short of realizing it, he was thwarted by a racist opposition and his own inclination to engage it in good faith. Perhaps worse, he was a president like most others where it counted the most: too invested in preserving his country’s global military might, rigidly enforced borders, and ballooning wealth to implement radical solutions to its ills.
By the 2016 presidential election, the merits of such a first — on its own terms — had become less evident. Bernie Sanders articulated this skepticism after Hillary Clinton’s loss. “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” he said, weeks after the election. “What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil-fuel industry.” The term “identity politics” — devised originally by black feminists to describe how broader liberation derived naturally from uplifting the most oppressed — was recast as a pejorative, used to describe liberals who privileged the optics of diversity over the practice of justice, on the one hand, and on the other to decry a politics that didn’t indulge white people enough. Sanders was making a case for the former. But both spelled electoral ruin for Democrats if permitted to thrive, many argued.
Despite this, naught but plaudits has greeted the election on Tuesday of Steven Reed, the first black mayor-elect of Montgomery, Alabama. Reed has no governing experience to predict how he’ll perform: He was previously a probate judge, and time will tell whether his verbal commitments to addressing poverty by eliminating food deserts and improving water quality come to pass. There’s vast opportunity for him to affirm the warranted misgivings of anyone who argues that a brown face adorning standard Democratic orthodoxy — cultural liberalism paired with a zeal for privatization and a barely fettered free market — does little to solve any kind of inequality. But its historic nature aside, which should not be discounted, Reed’s brand of first still serves what should be an integral part of any progressive agenda.
First, if racial justice is to be a cornerstone of any political movement, its longest-serving champions should be heard. And there are few cities where they can be found more readily than in Montgomery, which in the course of a century evolved from the first capitol of the Confederacy to the cradle of the civil-rights movement. The bus boycotts organized by local activists in 1955 and 1956 — and marked by the arrests of Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks and the neophyte leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. — were a citywide effort, enabled not just by protesters who agitated in the streets, but by an entire black populace that refused to ride public transit and helped each other by arranging carpools, undercharging each other for cab rides, and raising money for shoes to replace those worn thin by increased walking. Participants and their descendants, biological and ideological, still abide in the city in large numbers: Montgomery is 60 percent black, backed Reed’s election at a 67 percent clip among voters, and houses the headquarters for the Equal Justice Initiative, the premiere capital defense firm in the South, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, billed as the first memorial to the victims of American lynchings.
The import of Reed’s victory isn’t lost on many of them — if largely because it suggests their work isn’t futile, and charts a new avenue of possibility for a community confined to the margins of influence and opportunity and the miseries that mark both for too long. “I am a lifelong resident of Montgomery,” resident Janay Smith told CNN. “My family, I come from maybe about four generations of activists and community leaders. Many of those who came before me are now deceased and didn’t get a chance to see this. But I’m so proud of my city … My city, little bitty Montgomery, Alabama, a place known for racial tension actually came together and did something positive and historic.” An energized base is better equipped to facilitate progressive change than a demoralized one. Black political leadership hasn’t always implemented the policies most amenable to fighting inequality and white supremacy. But it widens the spectrum of what’s presumed possible.
This may seem cosmetic until its broader implications become clear. Georgia seemed doomed to endure Republican leadership in perpetuity until Stacey Abrams came closer to winning the governor’s mansion than any Democrat in decades. She ran on an agenda as far to the left as any of her national counterparts, a platform that included robust investments in green energy and expanded health care. But her approach was largely demographic, geared toward turning out nonwhite, poor, and low-frequency voters. She almost single-handedly put Georgia in play for rescue from the maw of reactionary rule. And she would’ve been the first black and first woman governor in the state’s history. Even having lost, she’s encouraged a surge of progressive political activity, suggesting that firsts often have a compounding effect that prompts others. The potential benefits of the unknown are just that.
This is especially true for Reed, whose lack of experience both invites skepticism and shields him from the resistance that might hound a first whose record is better known and more suspect in its progressive bona fides. He’ll have to prove himself, but in the meantime, firsts like his also prompt other strategic boons to materialize, most notably a delineation of the stakes of governing, forcing the opposition to show its hand. This goes for enemies as well as putative allies: Racism for some might still be understood as an undercurrent in national politics had Obama’s presidency not coaxed it out and laid bare its electoral salience, leading to the empowerment of the Tea Party and the election of Donald Trump. Firsts can also be a barometer for one’s commitment to equity in leadership. Even a mainstream movement for justice that doesn’t entrust power to the communities it most impacts risks becoming little more than a front for paternalism. These are both true even if Reed’s politics disappoint. An integral part of progressivism is discarding what doesn’t work, but it does itself few favors by deriding what does. A black first in Montgomery marks the toppling of a regime however you slice it, a turning point for a black population that was integral in making black American political power possible at all. It’s no guarantee, but it’s a first that’s rich with the capacity to beget others, for the better. That’s why Steven Reed matters.