PHENIX CITY, Ala. — 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 Lowe to a second four-year term — and, for the first time, elected a 3-2 black majority to the City Council.
This new reality, 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 Trump. But there was also something distinctly American about the response from Lowe, a twice-weekly attendee of the Greater Mt. 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, 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,” Lowe said. “If a gorilla can show love to someone different than her, we can show love.”
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. 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, 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.”
Lowe, a part-time mayor, is zealous to an almost Trumpian degree in his promotion of Phenix City. It is a former cotton-mill town somewhat lacking in charm that now serves as a bedroom community to Columbus, Georgia, and the Fort Benning military base across the Chattahoochee River. He knows the city is still half white, and that he will need white support for his visions, like his plan to create a downtown park that will honor Alabama’s fallen military heroes.
On race, Lowe calls himself “kind of a Pollyanna, utopia guy.” He credits football — even though the football life was not always utopian. His college career began in 1978 at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where during his freshman year most of the black players quit in a protest over the lack of African-Americans on the coaching staff. Lowe said that he and one other black player refused to quit.
“My parents didn’t raise me that way,” he said. The criticism, he recalled, rained down from all sides. “It got so bad you couldn’t even go to class,” he said. “You couldn’t even get a hamburger.”
He transferred to Alabama, and played under the famed coach Paul (Bear) Bryant. Then he was off to the Canadian Football League, where he spent nine years with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. “You play with guys from all over the world, all over the country,” he said. “Different cultures, different beliefs, different backgrounds, just totally different.” If “a bunch of dumb jocks” could unite and seek a common goal, he added, why can’t everyone?
The halo of gridiron stardom in this football-obsessed state helped Lowe win over many white residents in 2012, when he was elected with 64 percent of the vote. In office, he instituted a yearly State of the City report, and a yearly unity prayer breakfast. He pushed for a city mission statement that included a commitment to being free of “any expression of bias or prejudice.”
He helped establish the White Water Classic, a yearly football game between two historically black colleges, Albany State and Tuskegee universities. And he worked on improving Phenix City’s reputation, still damaged from midcentury, when it was a thriving hub of gambling, prostitution and crime that catered to — and preyed upon — the soldiers from Fort Benning.
He won the Aug. 23 election with 59 percent of the vote, proving that there are many whites here who are comfortable with black leadership. But the lingering grievances are real. Some residents, on social media, have criticized the White Water Classic and the celebrations around it because they catered to blacks. “Did anyone win the CHOCOLATE CITY CLASSIC?” one man wrote on Facebook on Sept. 10, the night of the game.
Others questioned Lowe’s assertion that the game was an economic boon for Phenix City. Lowe, in rebuttal, points to an in-house study that shows that the net gain for the city in the White Water Classic’s first two years was nearly $600,000.
Two days after the game, Lowe stopped by a TV station in Columbus for an on-camera interview, where he discussed, somewhat vaguely, the reasons he called the news conference. Afterward, the anchor, Mercer Van Schoor, asked, as if seeking reassurance: “You don’t like ‘Chocolate City?'”
“Well, listen, no,” Lowe said. “We are one Phenix City, as I’ve been saying. Positively one Phenix City.”
Driving around town in his tiny sedan, Lowe showed off the empty lots where he wants to put his military park. He vowed never to replace a white good-old-boy system with a black one. Running the city competently and fairly, he said, would demonstrate his character. He is optimistic enough to believe that this might even change the hearts of Phenix City’s staunchest racists.
“We’re not going to let that gorilla out-love us,” he said.