In 2007, Vince Williams was elected to the city council of Union City, Georgia, where he helped build a viable economic base by attracting professional and commercial businesses. Five years later, he was elected mayor of the city, and eight years after that he finds himself president of the Georgia Municipal Association, second vice president of the National League of Cities, and the keynote speaker for VLCT’s 2020 Town Fair.
The mayor’s list of civic engagement projects is long and varied, and he is indeed a busy man. But he did find time to talk to us about how current events are especially imperative to local officials, a topic he will likely expand upon at Town Fair.
Mayor Williams sees the social environment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement as an opportunity for long-sought change to occur. “John F. Kennedy said it so poignantly,” he says. “‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’* When do we get this right? We have an opportunity to do something great right now!”
Williams thinks we first have to accept the fact that this time, the opportunity for change is real. In the past, “many of us – it doesn’t matter of which race – had decided not to have this discussion because it was uncomfortable,” he says. “But we have to do it. This is a movement for multiracial, multi-cultural, and multi-generational individuals to collectively ensure that we do the right thing. This is not about gender, or race, or party preference. It is about humanity.”
Williams emphasizes the importance of listening to one another. “If we disagree, that’s okay, but let’s talk about it,” he says. “And local leaders, who are in the community the most, are best positioned to start the trajectory of change, because we see our friends and neighbors and constituents more so than do the [senators and representatives] we sent to Washington.”
He agonizes over the economic effects of the pandemic on municipalities. “Over 61 percent of cities are delaying or canceling equipment purchases. And that’s not the way to run a city. There’s talk now of defunding police departments, but we have to have law enforcement and public safety. Twenty-four percent of cities are already making significant cuts, including furloughs and layoffs. Some are even discussing reducing salaries. These things are real!”
Besides the COVID-19 virus ravaging the country, Williams clearly sees another existing pandemic: racism.
“It’s a pandemic that we haven’t dealt with for far too long,” he says. “The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks – right here in Atlanta – and countless other people of color sparked an outrage. It unleashed for all of us to see the anger and despair so many in our nation are feeling because of racial injustice and prejudice. These feelings of outrage are real. They are profound. They are with merit. And they can no longer be disregarded. As municipal officials, we have an obligation to confront this issue now.”
Williams says that in America, violence against black people is historic and systemic and has not changed for centuries. “We now have an opportunity to move in a new direction that reflects our humanity and our need for each other.”
And he sees a place for Vermont in the ongoing dialogue about racial injustice. “It’s a unique conversation for you [in Vermont] to have because of your population. (Vermont is second only to Maine in the percentage of white residents.) You can play a pivotal role because yours is a perspective that many others have never had,” he says.
“Embrace the discussion!” he enthuses. “Let other Americans see how change can work [in Vermont]. How much do we truly want to be our brother’s keeper? How much do we want to see inequality and injustice remedied? Our democratic values are grounded in the respect and dignity of every man, every woman. Municipal leaders have to be able to learn from observing the actions of others. And if we don’t do it now, we do a disservice to our children and to our nation.”
“We have to learn from this disruption in our lives,” he says. “It will either make us falter – division will only cause more division – or it will make us stronger. And we are always stronger when we work together. There is no better place than in our cities and our towns to begin to heal the wounds that our democracy and culture have sustained!”
VLCT News Editor
* The two short sentences “If not us, who? If not now, when?” attributed to President Kennedy are themselves a paraphrase of a two-thousand-year-old quotation by Hillel the Elder, a religious scholar of ancient Babylon. Those compelling words were also spoken by presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama and by Michigan Governor George Romney, confirming that the desire for change – often momentous change – has been a constant throughout history. — DG