Birmingham City Council

“You Have to Follow Your Own Path:” Mayor Bell Reflects on 40 Years of Public Service

Birmingham Mayor William Bell gave his farewell address at the end of Tuesday’s council meeting, his last as mayor of the city. (Special: Sam Prickett)

Nov. 21, 2017 — Mayor William Bell bid a tearful farewell to the Birmingham City Council during Tuesday’s meeting, the last of his nearly eight-year tenure as mayor.

His successor, Randall Woodfin, will be sworn into the office Tuesday.

During an emotional address in council chambers, Bell reflected on his decades-long career in government and expressed gratitude to his city employees — or, as he said he liked to call them, his “coworkers.”

Below are Bell’s full remarks to the council:


“Thank you, Madam President, and to the members of the City Council, the public — I notice my brother’s in the back, and I want to recognize and acknowledge him. If a tear should come to my eyes, it’s not because of this; it’s because I’m practicing for when my daughter gets married in April.

“But I did want to take this time to say thank you to the members of the City Council, both those that I’ve served with as well as those new council members who are coming into this position.

“In November of 1979, I was elected to the Birmingham City Council. At that time, it was a great joy and celebration that the first African-American mayor was elected to the city. That was Dr. Richard Arrington, and I could not have had a more inspiring individual to work with as an incoming council member. I never will forget as I took my seat with the council that sat up there. They were all legends in their own right, men and women  who were respected in the community, and here I was taking a seat with them.

“I know the joy that both Mr. Williams and Mr. O’Quinn and each one of you experienced the first time you took that seat. It was a blessing bestowed upon you by the people of this great city. At the time, on election night, my dad took me outside from all of the joy and laughter and rancor that goes on with winning an election, and he told me I only had two things that I took to City Hall. One was my name; the other was my word. … He said, ‘I gave you your name, but only you can give your word. Keep them both clean.’ And that stayed with me all these many years that I’ve served in various capacities — on this council, as mayor, as interim mayor, later as county commissioner.

“I enjoyed working with the men and women who really make this city grow, really make this city operate and hum. Oftentimes as a council member, I disagreed with items that they said we could or could not do, just like is being done now. As mayor, oftentimes they’d tell me, ‘No you can’t do certain things you thought you could do because other mayors did it, because times have changed.’ And time has changed.

“When I look back over the history of my service to this city, I can only say that it has been one of great pleasure, one of deepest respect and humility for everyone who walked through these doors, both elected and those who are coming to seek help or guidance from the city government.

“When I first walked in, the sign above the (council chamber) doors said, ‘Cities are what men make them.’ The council dais was over on the other side (of the room). The council dais was down on the far end there. There were a lot of things that were different.

“But we know that cities are what people make them. Black, white, men and women — might as well add yellow, brown and all the other colors of the rainbow. It’s what people make them. I’ve tried to guide myself by the commitment that I was here to serve. I’ve oftentimes referred to the employees of the city of Birmingham as my coworkers, because they are my coworkers. I’ve always said, ‘I don’t ride on the back of one car, I don’t try one case, I rarely type up a letter — if ever — (but) I do the things necessary to physically move this city forward. But I’ve had to rely upon the men and women of this great city to do exactly that.

“But I also want to thank the public. I want to thank the public, who keep you on your toes. They can lift you up, and they can tear you down. They can pat you on the back when they think you’re doing good, and then also let you know when they think you’re not doing well.

“That’s to say, I have not done everything that the entire public was 100 percent in favor of, but you’ll never have that situation. There’s always going to be controversy in every decision that you make.

“Mr. Williams, Mr. O’Quinn, I know that when I took the seats you took on, and when each one of your colleagues took those seats, you expect a manual to come in that will tell you how to be a council member or an elected official. There’s no such document that exists. You have to find your own way. You can’t look at other individuals and say, ‘I’m going to pattern myself after that person or this person.’ You have to follow your own path to serving people that you ask to vote for you.

“And when I look back over this period of time, I’m just truly grateful that we made a lot of changes, even though some people say, ‘Well, Larry Langford did this,’ or, ‘Richard Arrington did that.’ These men and women here are the ones that I interacted with on a daily basis, and they know who did what, when and how.

“Someone sent me a text before (this) with a long list of things to tell the council and the public as I walk outside the door, that I needed to tell my own story. But no man or woman tells their own story. Their works and deeds tell their stories, and someone else will look at that and make the judgment for the history books. And I will await that judgment, and I will abide by whatever decision history has for William Bell and his family.

“I know that leadership is difficult. I wish all the best success and luck to the incoming mayor, Mayor Woodfin. I’ve talked to him on several occasions. I’ve indicated to him that I am ready and willing to assist him in any needs that he may have, in terms of leading this city forward. Because one can’t pronounce a love for this city as an elected official and simply because (pause) they’re no longer an elected official, then say you don’t care. This is my city, I love this city, and I want to see it go forward.

“In closing, let me just say this. In the Bible, it tells you you will have good days and bad days, that life is full of ups and downs, and that man is born to have joys and woe. There have been good things to happen to me in this building. There have been some things that I wish had not have happened. But as it says in the Bible, ‘Count it all joy.’ Count it all joy that the people of this city gave me an opportunity. Count it all joy that I was able to make a difference in some people’s lives. Count it all joy that, as I walked into this building with my head held high, I’m going to walk out with my head held high.

“I love you. I love you, Birmingham, ain’t nothin’ you can do about it. And to my loving wife who’s watching this online, baby, I’m coming home. And thank all of y’all so much. And I do love this city. I love each and every one of y’all, and I thank you for your service. I really do. I thank you for your service.”


Following Bell’s speech, members of the council took turns thanking him for his service. They then passed a resolution naming Nov. 21, 2017, “William A. Bell Sr. Day.”