Public & Civic Club Talks
MAKING HISTORY IN ALABAMA
[Talk presented by John E. Enslen, Probate Judge-Elect of Elmore County, Alabama, on October 25, 2012, in the upstairs courtroom of the old courthouse in Wetumpka, Alabama, on the occasion of the retirement of long-time member of the Elmore County Commission and current Elmore County Commission Chairman Earl Reeves.]
Earl Reeves was born on January 20, 1948, in the Coosada community of Elmore County. He was the third of eight children born to Arthur and Ardella Reeves.
40 years ago, Earl married Julia Chapman, and they are the parents of 5 children and the grandparents of 13 grandchildren.
Earl’s father was a sharecropper on the Chapman lands in Coosada, and he served as the local president of an African-American burial society, a prestigious position in the black community of the 1940’s and 50’s.
Earl’s father died in 1961 when Earl was 13 years old. After his father’s death, Earl and his mother moved to Montgomery. As many will recall, 1961 was a time when blacks drank from a separate water fountain, used a separate restroom, ordered from a separate customer window at the Dairy Queen, sat in a separate area of the theater, rode in the back of the bus, attended a separate school, and washed their clothes at a segregated laundry mat.
In February of 1965, when Earl was age 17, he participated in the last leg of Martin Luther King’s historic Selma to Montgomery march.
In October of 1967, Earl was a senior attending all black Booker T. Washington High School on Union Street in Montgomery. He made a decision to volunteer for the U.S. Army, the least segregated institution in America. The Viet Nam War was in full swing.
Earl successfully completed both his GED and his 101st Airborne Ranger training at Ft. Benning, GA. Like a lot of us today, Earl was not the same size and shape back in 1967. He weighed 159 pounds, mostly muscle, and was a good athlete. He was agile, mobile and, when he needed to be, hostile. He was trained at Ft. Benning to fire the squad’s single shot, M-79, 40MM grenade launcher which looks like an oversized sawed-off shotgun. He became very accurate with his assigned weapon.
You’ve never heard Earl talk in detail about his time in Viet Nam. I feel honored that he has allowed me to tell you a few things that I had to pry out of him.
Earl arrived in Viet Nam in March of 1968. When his troop-transport plane touched down at night, the landing field was already under attack. His unwelcome reception was an omen to the next four months of his life.
Recon patrol across the DMZ became his regular assignment. There was one dangerous mission after another. Within a few weeks an enemy bullet had passed through one of his legs, fortunately without hitting bone. He plugged the entrance hole and plugged the exit hole and stayed on the job. Later, his actions with his grenade launcher above and beyond the call of duty earned him the bronze star, but not a release from the escalating combat.
A day Earl will never forget was July 3, 1968, about four months after he arrived in Viet Nam. Every walking step he has taken since that day contains a reminder of what took place there, half a world away. His squad was in a transport helicopter and on their way to reinforce a platoon that was pinned down in a hot firefight with North Vietnamese regulars. He jumped out of the noisy chopper which was hovering about 6 feet about the ground. Coming under immediate fire, he started running for cover. He traveled less than 50 feet when he stepped on an anti-tank mine.
Despite what would normally have been the inevitable, Earl survived the blast. There is only one plausible explanation: God was not finished with Earl. It was not Earl’s day to die.
The explosion ripped through the inner sides of his legs and thighs and propelled him upward through the air, riding with the blast. He remained conscious only long enough to see a fellow soldier bravely make his way to him. That was the last event he remembered before waking up in a hospital in Saigon and becoming upset because he was still on the earth.
There were many surgeries and a long recovery time in military hospitals—Saigon, Okinawa and then Walter Reed Army Hospital where President Lyndon B. Johnson personally presented Earl with his purple heart. Further stays and improvement at Maxwell and Ft. Rucker finally allowed him to return to an active duty station at Ft. Riley, Kansas for his last three months of duty as a mail clerk.
In 1969, exactly 43 years ago to this very day, Corporal Earl Reeves was honorably discharged following two years of devoted service. He is part of a great Viet Nam era legacy. When his imperfect country called, he still answered.
After discharge, Earl attended Alabama Christian and then Alex City Junior College where he received an associate degree in criminal justice in 1974, while near the same time graduating from the Montgomery Police Academy.
A review of Earl’s work history reveals that he is an African-American trailblazing pioneer. Although he much prefers being remembered as an individual human being who has made a positive contribution to society, as opposed to being remembered as the first “black” anything, history demands that I mention some of the important “firsts” and “seconds” in Earl’s impressive personal resume.
After working with the Street Department in the City of Montgomery under Mayor Jim Robinson, he applied for the position of Alabama State Trooper. When his application was totally ignored, he hired Morris Dees who won a landmark case before Judge Frank M. Johnson in U.S. Federal District Court. After winning the case, Earl, who can sometimes be unpredictable, declined the position.
Instead he took employment in 1976 as the second black deputy to serve in the Elmore County Sheriff’s Department, behind Evander Anthony, and working under Sheriff Sidney Thrash.
A year later, in 1977, after the City of Millbrook successfully incorporated following two attempts, Earl was part of the first group of policemen hired by that city. There were three in that group, and he was the only African-American and the only one of the three who had graduated from the police academy. The other two police officers, by the way, were Cecil “Cowboy” Folmer and Scott Ward.
The next year, 1978, Earl went to part-time work in law enforcement with both Millbrook and Coosada and took a full-time job with the Frank Lee Youth Center. Only three years into his eight years at that job, he became interested in politics.
Thus, in 1981, Earl entered his first political race, an unsuccessful attempt at a place on the Millbrook City Council. Although he lost the contest, he made new friends and gained valuable experience that would aid him in his next run for public office.
In October of 1986, he transferred within the state system. He traded his job at Frank Lee Youth Center for a law enforcement job with the Public Service Commission (PSC). He was the first African-American to serve as a PSC law enforcement officer. Eight years later, he would become the first black to hold the position of Chief Law Enforcement Officer in the PSC, which job he still holds today.
In 1988, two years after joining the PSC, Earl became the first African-American elected to the Elmore County Board of Education, serving from 1988 to 1992.
The year 1992 was the year that the Elmore County Commission added a 5th district, a majority-minority district. That year Earl became the first African-American elected to the Elmore County Commission. He was reelected at each subsequent four-year election cycle in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008. I lived in Earl’s district throughout that time and was always proud to have one of his political signs in my front yard.
In 2008, Earl was elected by his peers to serve as Chairman of the Elmore County Commission. He is the first African-American to hold that position. He was the sole Democrat amongst four Republicans who caught some party flack for electing Earl chairman. I like the statement made at the time by the late Paul Taylor, who nominated Earl for the chairmanship: “I didn’t look at Commissioner Reeves as Democrat or as a black. I looked at him as a commissioner with 16 years of experience.”
Over the past 20 years, Earl has worked with 17 different commissioners who would probably all say about the same as Paul. In alphabetical order those 17 commissioners, all equally good men in their own right, are David Bowen, Mack Daughtery, Larry Dozier, T. J. Eason, Edward Enslen (for one week), Joe Faulk, Jack Holley, Mark Hragyil, (that sounds like I got out of alphabetical order) Bill Matthews, Paul Payne, Mickey Shaw, Jimmy Stubbs, Melvin Taylor, Paul Taylor, Wayne Teel, Steve Whetstone, and Don Whorton.
During his service on the county commission, Earl became a strong advocate for the unit system. I was blessed to be the county attorney when the commission voted to change from the district system to the unit system, which many believe is probably the single greatest improvement in our county government in modern times.
Most of you will remember well the district system in which each commissioner was a so-called Road Commissioner in control of his own allotment of county funds, his own bank accounts, his own road building equipment, his own road building materials, and his own employees. It was not easy to dismantle that system.
Not all commissioners abused that system, but there was an ever-present strong temptation, especially around election time, to provide free driveways, free culverts, free gravel, and free equipment use. Each of you have your own set of stories that arose from that environment, and I will refrain from mentioning any of mine.
Earl and two others cast the three votes necessary to make the change to the unit system, and the county engineers ever since have done an outstanding job of professionally managing the county’s highway department, thus allowing the commissioners to concentrate on managing the other essential functions of county government. Earl has been at the forefront of many improvements.
I could say many more good things about Earl, but I won’t because it already sounds too much like we are about to close his casket and move to the cemetery instead of move to the refreshments room.
Earl would be the first to tell you that he is a long way from being perfect and has made some occasional mistakes. Earl would also be the first to tell you that he acknowledges the hand of God in every good thing he has ever been able to accomplish.
But in conclusion there is one more good thing I want to say about Earl that is the most important. Here is the footnote I would add. Earl has not achieved his success in life by complaining and whining when things did not go his way. Nor has he reacted to injustice or disappointment by resorting to hate or vindictiveness or name calling. He has carried himself with dignity. He has been a man of patient competence, consistently relying on good common sense, working harmoniously with others—seeking agreement and unity and common ground whenever possible. When that was not possible, he maintained a healthy respect for the differing opinions and positions of others. He has treated others the same way that he has desired to be treated—as a noble child of God.
That’s the Earl we know and love. That’s the Earl that we will remember.
And so it is my distinct honor and pleasure, on behalf of Earl’s fellow commissioners, past, present, and future, and on behalf of the commission staff and all of the county department heads and all of the county employees and indeed all of the citizens of Elmore County, to express to you, our friend Earl Reeves, our genuine collective gratitude and appreciation for your many years of outstanding, dedicated public service. May God bless you to enjoy every single day of a long and well-deserved retirement. Thank you Earl Reeves.