Birmingham Mayor William Bell was unable to appear at a civil rights breakfast in Montgomery on Saturday because President Obama wanted to speak with him at the White House.
As a result, Bell stayed in Washington, where he had been attending a meeting of Black mayors, and Birmingham Councilman Marcus Lundy was called late Friday to fill in for him.
Bell was expected to discuss with Obama efforts to secure millions of dollars in federal funds to help Birmingham with major road projects, including an area of the interstate system known as “Malfunction Junction.” The two have met several times in the past on important municipal issues.
Members of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity that sponsored the Ralph Abernathy Civil Rights Celebration Breakfast were understandably surprised by Bell’s absence, none more than Kevin “Sinclair” Nero.
After helping to put the event together, Nero kept looking for Bell to appear. A worried look could hardly describe his countenance at the RSA Activity Center, where a large crowd had gathered for breakfast and a speech from the leader of Alabama’s largest city.
He was told about Lundy 10 minutes before the program was to start and later informed the crowd that his concern could best be described as “way beyond that of a deer in the headlights.”
But everything worked out for the best, and it didn’t take long for Nero and Lundy to become friends while Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange, who was to have introduced Bell at the program. Strange instead spent much of his time discussing civil rights after learning of the speaker switch.
Strange indicated his mayoral friend from Birmingham found himself facing one of the easiest decisions in his political career.
“William Bell would be here today except for one reason, and that is the President of the United States,” said Strange, adding that Bell had to decide whether to be “with the president this morning or be with us in Montgomery.”
With a series of major civil rights anniversaries at hand in Alabama, Strange said cities involved with them are taking advantage of the commemorations.
He said Montgomery has been busy preparing and observing several of the events and will conclude next year with the 60th anniversary of the bus boycott, which occurred in 1955 and 1956.
The boycott launched the modern civil rights movement — a decadelong drive for equal rights that included protests in Birmingham, Selma, Marion, Tuskegee and other Alabama cities.
The protests ended in March 1965 when the Selma-to-Montgomery march concluded at the state Capitol with 25,000 activists filling Dexter Avenue.
The Rev. Ralph David Abernathy was born on a family farm in Linden in 1926. A Baptist minister, he would become a leader in the civil rights movement, rising to second in command of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Following King’s assassination in 1968, Abernathy assumed leadership of the organization and guided the Poor People’s campaign.
Abernathy died in 1990 at the age of 64.