By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on May 30, 2019
Dr. Zac Henson is a former Birmingham, Alabama-based social activist and scholar who proudly refers to himself as a “redneck” -- a white, working-class Southerner, albeit one who received his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, and whose politics, in contrast to the general view of “rednecks,” are decidedly not right-wing. He currently resides in Montgomery.
In April 2019, Dr. Henson published a book titled, “Memoirs of a Mad Redneck.” The book has a fascinating chapter on Randall Woodfin, Birmingham, Alabama’s 37-year-old first-term mayor.
Woodfin has been in the news recently about his failure to stop Sherman Industries from moving its dangerous, air-polluting concrete manufacturing plant from its downtown location to a predominantly black residential neighborhood in the Five Points West community of Birmingham. While Woodfin claims the plant is not coming to the Five Points West community, Sherman Industries is proceeding with its application for an air permit for the plant site in this residential community.
Again this backdrop, Dr. Henson's assessment of Mayor Woodfin is enlightening. Here is Dr. Henson's view of Woodfin today:
“Shortly after releasing the MCAP Strategic Plan in 2015, a young district attorney and president of the Birmingham Board of Education, Randall Woodfin, approached us about potentially supporting his 2017 mayoral campaign. The meeting was set up by Mark Kelly, a local liberal newspaperman and genuinely good guy who would hook his wagon to Woodfin.
I worked for Kelly at his newspaper, Weld for Birmingham, as a delivery driver for about three years until the newspaper folded. The paper was pretty unique in Birmingham. They had a strong editorial stance, they ran series on gentrification and poverty in Birmingham, and even went far out on a limb to critique the main development non-profit, REV Birmingham, in their dealings with the people of Birmingham. It’s really sad that it ultimately folded because it provided such a strong service to the Birmingham community, a voice from the left in Birmingham, advocating for justice and change. I published two editorials in the paper, one on gentrification and one on asset based community development, and Weld allowed a number of community members to publish editorials in the paper. I’m happy that I got to contribute to Weld in my own little way and disappointed that it folded. It seems that the days of small, local papers with strong editorial stances are gone and all that’s left is fluff articles and click bait.
Randall ran a great campaign. Let me say that from the beginning. He knocked on doors, he reached out to many different communities in Birmingham, he was organized, and he executed the plan. He came out of nowhere to win an election that everyone thought the incumbent, William Bell, would win in a walk. He networked nationally and raised money almost solely through small donations. He also used the movement community to get elected and turned on us less than two months after inauguration. He began with our community in 2015.
Randall read our plan and seemed high if non- committal on the projects. During the meeting he was open, asked questions, and asked how he could help. He has a weird sort of everyman charisma where he never claims to be an expert, but appears to be listening and engaging with the community. We never thought he was a revolutionary, but we did think that he would listen and that he would work with us.
I met with him a number of times. I told him that if he wanted to get elected that he needed to adopt our plan and that he needed to use social media to stay in the traditional media like Trump. My thoughts were that since he would be at a monetary disadvantage to Bell, he could use free media to leverage the narrative.
He seemed attentive, but there were red flags. He talked shit about Avee Shabazz calling him a sovereign citizen. It’s something that I should have caught. He was playing members of the movement off each other, implying that he was going to go with us and not with Shabazz and his team. I missed it completely. I wanted to believe in Randall probably too much and was blinded by the thought of getting a mayor favorable to us. Randall is probably the greatest mistake that I ever made in movement work and it was a big one.
I met with Randall six or seven times leading up to and during the election. We also regularly exchanged text messages. He also showed me a tweet from Chokwe Lumumba, radical mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, that showed Lumumba’s support for Randall. Randall of course knew that I admired Lumumba and the work being done in Jackson. I told Randall that if he wanted to be like him Lumumba, he had to support cooperatives. And Randall did.
In August of 2017, Randall endorsed The Black Agenda, a document created by The Grassroots Coalition-Birmingham, a 501c4 organization that grew out of the MCAP Strategic Plan. The plan was wide ranging and included policing reform, cooperative economics, and transportation. Randall carefully guided the debate about economics toward black-owned businesses and community land trusts. It was an explicit endorsement of one type of cooperative institution, community land trusts, and an implicit endorsement of cooperatives generally. Randall had previously put participatory budgeting and citizens oversight of police in his platform, after which I personally endorsed him. After endorsing The Black Agenda, The Cooperative New School endorsed Randall.
Bell hired Matrix, a political consulting firm, to attack Randall. Matrix and the Bell campaign paid a number of grassroots organizers to switch sides. The two most prominent to switch sides were Carlos Chaverst and Cara McClure. I do not know if or how much they were paid, but they did switch sides in the middle of the election. Cara’s switch drove a wedge in Black Lives Matter-Birmingham of which she was one of the founding members. In retrospect, it would have probably made more sense to just take the money because name of the person in political office ultimately doesn’t matter because the Big Mules always have and still do control Birmingham. In a city and state this corrupt, there’s little room for idealism and a mercenary attitude is rewarded institutionally.
The Bell campaign also recruited a number of online influencers to attack Randall, and the arguments online reached a fever pitch in the months leading up to the election.
But none of it phased Randall. He had an army of free social media personalities to fight for him because they believed in him, and nothing Matrix or Bell could do would stick. Randall’s staff also seemed quite a bit more adept at using social media than the Bell campaign, creating humorous memes and driving the narrative. Randall won in a landslide.
Randall’s first move was to create transition committees that brought together people from all sectors of Birmingham to supposedly craft his agenda. There was a social justice committee, which many movement folks were on. It seemed like we were gaining institutional legitimacy, but I chose not to be on the committees because I wanted to maintain my independence. Some people were raising red flags.
We were in the process of creating the Cooperative Business Development Center with a couple of black women organizers and a radicalized former small business owner, which was to be an incubator for cooperative businesses. The center was gaining some traction. We were working with the Woodlawn Foundation to create a cooperative grocery store and we were working with a number of other people to create cooperatives. People openly wondered how much of Randall’s promises he was actually going to do and some members of the CBDC were quite skeptical of all Randall’s initiatives.
The transition committee process included a number of public meetings to craft a social justice agenda for this city. This included an Office of Social Justice. There was a wide range of recommendations ranging from pollution to cooperatives and everything in between.
But, things began to fall apart for Randall not long into his tenure. In January of 2018, Randall announced that the city was going to build a stadium. It was the first thing he did in spite of the fact that he had said during the campaign that it was not a priority. The cost was $90 million over 30 years and the stadium would be owned by the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center, which is essentially a white shadow government, and not the city. Randall touted unrealistic returns on the stadium for the city, numbers which included the redevelopment of Caraway Hospital, a project which would only be taken on by an insane person or someone with a healthy subsidy. I challenged Randall on it on Facebook. He responded that he wanted to talk.
I spoke with him by phone. I told him that I’d get behind it if he got a community benefits agreement on the stadium. He agreed. I wrote a plan to include CBA benefits in the bidding process. Randall agreed in writing to get a CBA in a response to City Councilor Darrell O’Quinn’s written set of questions. I even chewed out O’Quinn at a community meeting in front of about thirty people. This was not what we voted for.
There was never a CBA. Randall’s progressive/movement support began to disintegrate. I still believed in him, but some of the things that were red flags, like his business community support, began to pop up in my mind. Every movement person was waiting on the transition committee process to see if it was all real or fake.
Randall reserved the Alabama Theatre and gave the results of the transition committee process. It was vague and indeterminant, but one thing was clear. Randall was a neoliberal reformer. Randall was going to take the city from an essentially Third World banana republic to a modern neoliberal city where gentrification was king and businesses could make tons of money. He did promise to create an Office of Social Justice, but that has not yet happened. People were very disappointed.
The final straw and the moment that completely dissolved Randall’s credibility was when he refused to make Birmingham a Sanctuary City, which he promised to do during the campaign. Randall had failed to do anything that he promised to the movement; not one thing. I don’t know if this is because Randall is incompetent in terms of moving a bureaucracy or if it is because he never really intended to do it in the first place. Either way it makes him a liar.
Birmingham is perpetually missing its potential. There was a moment, one moment, when everything seemed to come together. I don’t like big crowds at all, but I decided to go to the celebration of Randall’s victory on the night of the election. The people there were what Birmingham really is and what it could be. Avee Shabazz, Mark Kelly, Michael Hansen, Julia Juarez, Martez Files, and many others. The campaign had brought these people together in a way that Birmingham had never seen before and it was truly powerful. The people there could have supported and fought for Randall as he tried to do something no one else has ever done anywhere. But, that moment is gone and the opportunity is missed. The lesson learned is that white suburban capitalists control Birmingham and have since 1871 including during and after the Civil Rights Movement.
Big Mule, or Alabama capitalist usually living in the Birmingham suburbs, Sid Smyer famously said, “I’m a segregationist but I’m not a damn fool.” The Big Mules could see that holding on to segregation was going to destroy their power, and they eliminated it and reorganized the government in order to maintain that power. Birmingham was a colony of the Big Mules under direct rule during Jim Crow. Now it is a colony under indirect rule.
I moved to Montgomery because my wife is now the executive director of Alabama Arise. My work in Birmingham is over and most of my activism is both a hobby and national/international. I’m semi-retired from activism, working at a shop, and restoring my 1985 Toyota 4Runner. It’s been a difficult transition. It’s not often that something that you feel is your life’s work like Birmingham just abruptly ends and you’re left with an unknown and open future. I don’t know what is in store for me, but I do know that I’m proud of the work we did together in Birmingham. We came damn close, damn close to achieving something truly revolutionary and I hope history remembers all of us for that. It’s proof that it is possible, even in the South.”
PHOTO: Dr. Zac Henson, former Birmingham, Alabama activist and community organizer. He is a self-described “Mad Redneck.”