About the Author: Lee Anna Maynard, PhD, is a freelance writer, editor and scholar currently based out of Augusta, GA, where she is on faculty with Augusta University. She received her PhD in English from the University of South Carolina and was an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Philosophy for Auburn University Montgomery. She has served as the managing editor for a regional magazine and her first academic volume, which explores the role of boredom in the Victorian novel, was published in 2009.
Municipal leaders had made fitful attempts to commiserate and strategize starting as early as 1914 when several individuals, including Commissioner James Wheatley of Birmingham and Dean George Jacob Davis, Jr. of the faculty of the University of Alabama, met in Tuscaloosa and discussed such subjects as constitutional limitations on debt and taxation and the city manager plan of government. In 1926, the Alabama Association of Mayors and City Commissioners was formed when nearly 100 municipal officials met in Fairfield and elected Mayor Sidney J. Reaves of Anniston as its first president. Gestures toward organization basically amounted to collecting dues1935- of $5.00 and meeting annually at a hotel to “chew the fat and discuss administrative problems,” as Louis P. Mullins, a charter member, remembered. Since membership was rather modest and the war chest was nonexistent, no efforts were made to lobby the state legislature. Despite urging prospective members to “be present without fail” at meetings in order to, as the organization’s charter hopefully outlined, “develop a cooperative approach to all Municipal problems of Statewide import” and “secure the enactment of legislation that will enable all the Towns and Cities of the State to perform their functions more efficiently,” early attempts to organize sputtered out before any significant headway was made. By the mid-1930s, however, a small cadre of participating mayors was driven to desperation by their sense of being “kicked around the Legislature by the State and county government leaders” and resolved to create an organization that would become a true force to be reckoned with.
In 1935, with the advice and help of a governor sympathetic to the municipalities’ plight, the organization that was to become the modern incarnation of the Alabama League of Municipalities gained both a toehold in the rugged terrain of Alabama politics and an executive director whose charisma would define the group for decades. Governor Bibb Graves not only gave the fledgling organization office space on Goat Hill in the Capital until they could afford to lease something else but he also suggested the League retain the services of Ed E. Reid, a charismatic, energetic young man with a background in journalism and government, as the first salaried director.
Reid, only twenty-five years old, was born in Evergreen, had grown up in Georgiana, attended The University of Alabama, edited a newspaper in Flomaton, and embarked on a political career in the state capitol of Montgomery, serving as private secretary to the Speaker of the House. Defined by his unbridled energy, dynamic personality and political savvy, Reid made lasting impressions on all who met him, quickly revising the opinions of any who might have dismissed him based on his relative youth or his diminutive stature. In a region full of larger-than-life political figures, Reid still managed to cut a distinctive figure: his highly-tailored suits, bright hair, and purposeful walk accurately reflected his confidence, competence, and ambition. Like a bantam rooster, he pursued the interests of his employers aggressively and single-mindedly, all while wearing the latest fashions and relating – and starring in – colorful anecdotes. Louis Mullins, former mayor of Elba, recalls Governor Graves’ labeling Reid a “ball of fire” and a “go-getter” when he recommended Reid to the 24 members of the current incarnation of the League.
Ed Reid Era – Early Years
The League’s meager bank account – not even breaking four figures – motivated its new director to seek outside funding, and Reid was awarded a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that covered his salary and provided a modest travel budget for a few years, enough time for this driven, determined man to recruit many more members for the League and funnel their membership fees into building the infrastructure that those municipal members would soon find indispensable. In only four years, Reid cultivated a nearly three hundred and fifty percent increase in the League’s roster of member municipalities, from the legislatively-ignored original 24 to a healthier 107.
Although their increasing frustration at being hamstrung by the 1901 Constitution may have been the tipping point for those charter members of the 1935 League, gaining more power and influence in the State Legislature that often decided their communities’ fates was only one of the reasons those mayors determined the League needed to exist. In addition to marshalling a concerted effort to effectively lobby state policymakers, the young organization was charged with developing and offering resources to help municipal officials meet the challenges of their communities. In much the same spirit that Progressive Farmer magazine urged its readers to embrace agricultural technology and turn an analytical eye to their farming in the 1930s, the charter members of the newly-energized 1935 League of Municipalities wanted to create an apparatus that would study, educate, and inform – almost establishing a practical science of local government as opposed to the haphazard and motley application of governance found from the Wiregrass to the Shoals.
Efficiency, modernity, and consistency were clearly watchwords for the new League, and the collecting and disseminating of information was not only critical to accomplishing these goals but also a natural fit for Reid, the former newspaper editor. His gift for communication and promotion aided him as he traveled throughout the state meeting and virtually requisitioning local political leaders into League membership and as he began regularly publishing the organization’s goals, findings, and accomplishments in the Alabama Municipal News. In the inaugural issue, distributed October 1937, Reid’s publication named the League’s current officers, explained the phenomenon of “pressure groups” and their impact on legislative processes, explored the hidden costs of some legislative proposals, and educated readers on the ins and outs of fire insurance for municipal properties. His goal, as this first issue illustrates, was to provide accurate information, informed opinions, and pragmatic advice for running towns and cities – the principal that still guides the League’s monthly publication, now called The Alabama Municipal Journal.
Despite all these early achievements of the League, Alabama’s municipal leaders were still facing roadblocks from the State Legislature as the 1930s came to a close. In the 1939 legislative session, popular proposals to grant all municipal budgetary power to the state lawmakers and to empower the governor to fill municipal vacancies threatened the halting steps toward self-government and semi-independence the leaders of towns and cities had made over the past few years. Thanks to the League’s valiant lobbying efforts, these proposed policies were defeated, but there were still thunderclouds looming over Alabama’s municipalities – debts that had piled higher and higher during the Great Depression.
On January 10, 1939, as he was leaving office, Governor Bibb Graves tried one final time to aid the League and the municipalities it represented. In a speech to the assembled state legislators, he praised the grit and gumption of local governments that maintained order on shoestring budgets in times of great adversity, hoping to increase the lawmakers’ appreciation of these relatively powerless officials: during the Depression, he reminded legislators, “nowhere in this state has municipal government broken down, although seriously threatened in a number of places. Courageous efforts had to be made to meet the demands placed on municipal services.” Exhorting the legislators to forgive the debts cities and towns owed the state, Graves conjured images of an Alabama where municipal governments ceased to function, a dystopia where “the abandonment of street lighting” would make streets “a haven of criminal activity and reckless driving,” the interruption of garbage services would have fostered disease, and fire losses would have ballooned in the absence of dependable emergency services.
The financial strain and disruption of the Great Depression was eased by a slowly recovering national economy as the 1940s began, but that economic bounce-back was partly fuelled by the ever-widening scope of what was to become World War II. One of Alabama’s important contributions to America’s involvement in the war was the airmen trained in Tuskegee and at Maxwell Army Air Field in Montgomery, where the region’s flight-friendly climate and the Tuskegee Institute’s facilities and expert staff would create the nucleus of the military’s experimental training program. These pilots, whose 99th Fighter Squadron earned a distinguished combat record, satisfied rigorous, specially-formulated entrance requirements to become the first African Americans to fly for the U.S. military. Shrieking through the skies above Morocco, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, and even Berlin, Germany, the pilots engaged in aerial dogfights while protecting huge bombers intent on destroying fuel and munitions storehouses and disabling tank and equipment manufacturers. Fighting discrimination and often operating day-to-day in segregated environments, the airmen and ground crews earned reputations with Allied and Axis powers alike for their prowess: as escorts for B-17s and defenders of strategically important sites, the “Redtail Angels” safeguarded their country’s and allies’ interests.
The Cold War’s Influence
If a somewhat different version of who did what in office buildings and behind white picket fences affected municipal governments in Alabama in the 1950s, these cities and towns also adjusted to changing concerns regarding national security and disaster preparedness. Though the whole country had been invested in the war effort during World War II, the closest enemy troops ever came was the islands of Hawaii, with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. The continental U.S. was never successfully breached by Axis forces, partly because of the geographical buffers of huge oceans on its east and west boundaries. The atom bomb, a decisive weapon in the Allies’ victory, suddenly became a cause for great fear in mid-century America. This game-changing technology meant enemies were ever less constrained by geographical challenges and average Americans were ever more vulnerable. Adding to the anxiety was Americans’ sense that it was their way of life that was resented or despised, which meant that a nuclear attack might be directed at bastions of apple-pie and county fairs – small town America – rather than just military targets.
Preoccupied with the threat of a nuclear strike, towns and cities adopted federally-promoted civil defense measures that focused on helping individuals increase their chances of survival through preparedness. In Alabama, as around the country, schoolchildren were taught to duck and cover, learning to clamber under their desks at a word from their teacher or the first blast of a siren, and graphically startling yellow-and-black signs began to designate many municipal buildings as nuclear radiation fallout shelters. Over fifty Packaged Disaster Hospitals were distributed across the state, accompanied by detailed manuals that explained how to quickly assemble the kits in the event that brick-and-mortar care facilities were obliterated, incapacitated, or overwhelmed. Despite the labeling of these municipal efforts, planned city and town responses could hardly be called “defense” – instead, they were about adapting to catastrophe.
Although their response plans were, thankfully, unneeded for a nuclear event, Alabama’s municipalities were soon to face socially explosive happenings. Their polarizing reactions to the early phases of the civil rights movement and the social unrest that accompanied it took place in the increasingly bright glare of a national spotlight, shaping public perceptions of Alabama for decades to come.
Rosa Parks’ quietly brave 1955 decision not to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery city bus is often cited as the symbolic beginning of the modern civil rights movement; however, the momentous United States Supreme Court decision a year earlier in the Brown vs. Board of Education case laid the groundwork for much of the upheaval, turbulence, and change municipalities would face in the fifties and sixties.
Through the late 1940s and first part of the 1950s, under the leadership of Ed Reid, the Alabama League of Municipalities had focused on helping their member towns and cities create more stable, solvent, and seamless operations, influencing key legislation that made Alabama’s highway department financially responsible for maintaining state and federal roadways that passed through municipalities; that increased the scope of decisions local governments could make without consulting state lawmakers; that enhanced municipalities’ abilities to levy and collect taxes; and that established improved compensation and benefits structures for mayors, commissioners, and other elected officials in cities and towns. Just as importantly, the League facilitated quick, reliable communication and interaction between municipal officials and state and federal lawmakers. Within 15 years of its inception, the Alabama League would rate in the top five in the nation and Reid was cited by the national association as one of the five “best possible sources of information” on local government.
As the preponderance of the population of Alabama began shifting from rural to urban dwellings during the post-war years, drawing more and more heavily on the infrastructures of towns and cities, municipalities of all sizes depended on the League’s legislative and administrative efforts. The League’s focus in those ten years immediately after victory was declared for the Allies was primarily on helping municipalities develop and expand with as few growing pains as possible; however, the organizational and educational work accomplished during this time of relative stability was to be tested by the turmoil accompanying the push for civil rights.
The peaceful protests Alabamians ventured over the course of the next ten years in pursuit of civil rights – including boycotting Montgomery city buses, attempting to matriculate at state universities, and marching from Selma to Montgomery in a campaign for voting rights – were often met with reactionary violence and bloodshed, from the bombing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home in Montgomery to the horrendous abuse of Freedom Riders, Selma-to-Montgomery marchers, and Birmingham protestors. In addition to the practical challenges of restructuring existing municipal functions as civil rights were haltingly increased, city and town leaders were charged with keeping the peace and maintaining order in environments simultaneously angry, fearful, and irrational. Cameras caught and nationally publicized some of the unconscionable, officially-sanctioned reactions to civil-rights demonstrations in the state, though many municipal officials worked diligently to advance the changing legal and social attitudes peacefully in hostile conditions.
The End of an Era
As local unrest reached a fever pitch, the guiding light of the Alabama League of Municipalities, the man who, for many, was the League, died. With Ed Reid’s death from cancer in July of 1965, John Watkins, the League’s Legal Counsel, became the new Executive Director. Watkins had impressive (if compact) shoes to fill: Reid had not only built the League from the ground up, but he had also turned it into a small but efficient organization recognized nationally as a powerhouse of influence, organization, and communication.
He had attended every legislative session from 1935-1965 and was voted “Most Effective Lobbyist in the Legislature” five times. In the words of Leonard Beard, a mayor of Sheffield and the 1956 president of the Alabama League of Municipalities, no other league in the country had a better reputation for “getting things done both at the state and national level” or for conducting research, disseminating information, and handling an incredibly high volume of daily inquires from constituent municipalities. Reid’s early fame as a “go-getter” never diminished – up until his death, municipal officials who had benefitted from the League’s efforts under his administration touted his organization’s service and even-handed representation of cities and towns of all sizes.
The trailblazer from Evergreen earned a nationwide reputation for his expertise in local government matters and, more importantly for the people of Alabama and the officials who served them, he showed municipal leaders that they mattered.