Eddie Lowe, First Black Mayor of Phenix City, Alabama, Is Out to Win the Heart of Every Voter

Eddie Lowe, the first black mayor of Phenix City, Ala., in his office last week. Credit Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times
Eddie Lowe, the first black mayor of Phenix City, Ala., in his office last week. Credit Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

Eddie Lowe, this city’s first-ever black mayor, could feel the white anxiety here.

It was early September in Phenix City, a small east Alabama borough where the percentage of African-Americans has risen over the decades, to the point that they are nearly on a par with whites. Voters had just re-elected Mr. Lowe to a second four-year term — and, for the first time, elected a 3-to-2 black majority to the City Council.

This new reality, Mr. Lowe’s predecessor told a local paper, had created a “great division” between blacks and whites in the city of 37,500, and was stoking fears among white residents that minorities would be favored in future board appointments.

A few white residents had begun posting racist reactions on social media: On Aug. 28, five days after the election, one man wrote on Facebook that it “may be time to throw in the towel and admit ‘the brothas rule.’” A young black activist, meanwhile, had been publicly provoking them by declaring that Phenix City was now “Chocolate City.”

The crisis seemed emblematic of this fragile American moment, in which white voters’ fear of diminished political clout has helped fuel the rise of Donald J. Trump. But there was also something distinctly American about the response from Mr. Lowe, a twice-weekly attendee of the Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church and former defensive captain of the University of Alabama football team. On Sept. 8, he held a news conference that turned out to be more of a sermon, mixed with an impassioned locker-room speech.

With an array of black and white residents behind him, Mr. Lowe told the story of a child who fell into a gorilla pit at an Illinois zoo, only to be scooped up by one of the gorillas and safely delivered to paramedics. “If a gorilla can show compassion to someone who doesn’t look like her, certainly we can show compassion,” Mr. Lowe said. “If a gorilla can show love to someone different than her, we can show love.”

Mr. Lowe is 56 and maintains a linebacker’s form, with dump-truck shoulders and the kind of large, blocky hands one finds on workers in social realist murals. His father was a sharecropper and brick mason. Mr. Lowe, as a child, played football in an empty lot on the poor, black south side of Phenix City, sometimes with an empty bean can in place of a ball. At Alabama, he earned a degree in finance. Today, he is a senior vice president at a bank.

Every day, Mr. Lowe teaches himself a new word from the dictionary and reads a chapter of Proverbs. He revels in the occasional dip into cornpone Southern slang. His management theory: Don’t be a caitiff (“You can look that up,” he said) but rather, a “sho nuff leader.” By which he means: Don’t make it about you. Take your knocks if you must. Love people. Lead by example.

“You have to be consistent,” he said. “You have to show and be that person, and be willing to take the bumps and bruises.”

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Source: The New York Times | RICHARD FAUSSET