U.S. Army officer Lemuel P. Montgomery founded Montgomery County, Alabama in 1816 in what was then the Mississippi Territory. Montgomery County is older than the state of Alabama and has seen many changes over the past 200 years.
The Montgomery County Commission spent all of 2016 celebrating the county’s bicentennial. The Commission has recognized the individuals that served and sacrificed to explore, develop and grow our county over the past two centuries. Among the activities done to honor the county this year: our school children made giant birthday cards and presented them to the Commission, local students designed and built a lovely metal statue, there was a celebration at our local fair, and county employees walked two hundred miles during the spring, and ESPN invited the Commissioners onto the field for recognition during the Camellia Bowl. As current residents of this beautiful land, it is our privilege and responsibility to build on what we have been given and to lay the foundation for the growth that will occur over the next 200 years.
I was raised in Montgomery in the 1970s and 1980s and spent my youth playing softball, going on church trips, cheerleading for my public school, and participating in YMCA programs like Youth Legislature. My middle class family was loving and supportive and I was blessed with a simple but idyllic childhood. Since then I’ve lived in several U.S. states and in the metropolitan areas of Washington, D.C. and Honolulu, Hawaii and enjoyed my time in each place. But I’m glad I’ve come full circle and am raising my children in Montgomery.
I desire for them to have all of the things I did… and much more.
Montgomery has a small town feel with some wonderful big city amenities. If my husband and I want to dine at a nice restaurant we have multiple options. We can enjoy live theater at the nationally acclaimed Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The symphony and ballet offer spectacular entertainment. Or we can enjoy local theater at the Cloverdale Playhouse. Experiencing a night with the Montgomery Biscuits – our Double A baseball team – is a favorite pastime of thousands locally. The Shoppes at Eastchase offer anything your retail heart desires. For my children there is little league, the zoo, movie theaters, and museums. Our economic engines like Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, Coca-Cola United, and the many farms that dot the rural landscape blend nicely with our perennial powerhouses like Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, state government agencies, and the many colleges and universities in our area.
But I believe Montgomery’s best resource is her people. Smart, genuine, hard-working individuals who have a deep faith and desire to serve. When your family welcomes a new baby, or you have an unexpected surgery, or when you experience a personal loss you can know someone will be on your front porch with a casserole within the day. Going out of town? Just ask a neighbor to check your mail and keep an eye on your home. Neighborhood associations throughout the county are strong and create small communities that watch out for each other. Walk downtown and you’ll get plenty of “hey y’alls” and doors held open. It’s a friendly, easy place to live.
But it would be disingenuous of me not to mention that the people of Montgomery have unique challenges, many related to our past. When we insisted on separating black people and white people in public spaces and we justified denying an entire race of citizens their rights, we set the stage for future divisiveness and strife. When white Montgomerians nailed signs onto the walls of shops indicating what your skin color had to be to drink from a certain water fountain we set ourselves up for brokenness. Although my hands never held a hammer or drove a nail, my white-skinned family pays the price for the sins of our forefathers. Older black residents remember well the days of hatred, lost opportunity, and at times despicable brutality. For some, that brokenness manifests itself now in anger and distrust. However, many blacks of the 1960s generation see a new hope and vision for Montgomery. Although borne of a divide, we are a new Montgomery, a stronger Montgomery.
Montgomery County is now majority black and our leadership has transitioned from predominantly white male to a strong blend of black, white, male, female, young and old. While some see the shifting demographics as a negative most, like myself, see it as a tremendous opportunity.
As a new generation of Montgomery comes of age and rises to new leadership roles, we have an opportunity to show the nation how we can live together and succeed together as brothers and sisters so that we do not perish as fools.
We will build the strongest community not just in the South, but the entire nation and we will do it as a blended microcosm of all that is great in our country, not as a segregated enclave reflecting an aged and unnecessary monolith. We will show our neighbors how people from different backgrounds, different generations, different races, genders, and social circles can come together and infuse our community with the best that every individual has to offer.
Education, economic growth and crime are the issues of greatest concern for individuals across our nation and Montgomery is no different. Montgomerians will not bow to the negative rhetoric and disdain from those who prefer to sit comfortably shouting about problems rather than digging deep for solutions. We will focus on individuals and building relationships and from those relationships we will problem solve together. We will rise above our past and create a future many cannot imagine.
Yes we have our mountains to climb, but if we will lay aside our individual agendas and consider the needs of future generations we will succeed. We cannot get stuck dwelling on our problems, rather we must work on solutions to critical issues such as expanding broadband access in the county and marketing our new Montgomery internet exchange which creates the foundation for expanding technology significantly in our entire region. We must support and expand our healthcare system, we must manage our vast human resources in the non-profit sector so that we curb duplicative services and get resources where they are needed most. We must create a quality of place in Montgomery that will attract and maintain millennials in unique and remarkable ways. And certainly we must demand quality education for every child in Montgomery, understanding that poor education and high crime rates are inextricably linked.
So, Happy Birthday Montgomery County! The next two hundred years are going to be exciting as we learn from our mistakes, rise above our weaknesses and focus on our strengths. Together we will build a community where everyone can thrive.
Ronda M. Walker is the Vice Chairman of the Montgomery County Commission, a wife, and a mother of four.