Voters in Charleston will go to the polls this November to do something they haven’t done in 40 years: elect someone other than Joe Riley as their mayor. No one suspected back in 1975 when they voted for a feisty 32-year-old real estate lawyer that they were choosing a mayor for life, a Democrat who not only would breeze through nine reelection campaigns in a Republican state but also, when faced with major crises and challenges, would show the rest of the country how a public official is supposed to lead.
America first met Joe Riley in 1989 when Hugo, a massive Category 4 hurricane, slammed into the South Carolina coast, and his calm, forceful leadership saved lives and laid down the template for handling natural calamities. Until this past June, everyone said Hugo had been Joe Riley’s “finest hour.” Then, with only a couple hundred days left for him to serve, came the Mother Emanuel shootings, the shocking murder by a white racist of nine African-Americans attending Wednesday night Bible study in the basement of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston.
“It is the most difficult thing we’ve faced, just an unbelievable rupture for the community,” an exhausted Mayor Riley recalled only a day or so after he had finished attending countless memorials and all nine funerals.
Yet the tragedy will go down in history as transformative, mostly because of the grace with which the families of the slain stood and forgave the accused murderer in open court, rendering an almost unworldly mass display of peace and unity. “These people say the Lord’s Prayer, and they mean it,” says Riley of the Mother Emanuel families. The outpouring of interracial, interfaith harmony culminated in a visit by President Obama, who delivered a passionate eulogy in praise of faith and against racial hatred.
Riley was right there beside the President, front and center just as he had been from the moment the tragedy struck—angry but comforting, hurting but strong. Echoing the feelings of most Charlestonians, his every move seemed to say, “How could such a thing happen? And how could it happen in my city?”
Truth is, Charleston is very much Joe Riley’s city, and while it isn’t overstepping to give him some credit for the way it comported itself, he lays it all on the citizenry. “This community’s instinctive, unscripted natural reaction of unifying love made me so proud,” he says. “And it was so helpful to this country. It reminded me of Bobby Kennedy’s notion that the American city is supposed to be a series of communities where thousands of invisible strands of affection and respect tie themselves to each other.”
It’s worth remembering that the Charleston you see today—a mix of the restored historic nestled alongside the thoughtful contemporary, teeming with pedestrians—bears little resemblance to the city young Joe Riley took over.
That Charleston was a small port town with a shrinking population and a decaying center city marked by abandonment and disinvestment. Jobs and people were fleeing to the suburbs. The U.S. Navy was the area’s biggest employer, and crime was the citizenry’s top concern.
Many of the stunning antebellum mansions south of Broad Street were then paint-chipped hulks, some broken up into apartments. Known today for its culinary scene, Charleston in 1975 had few restaurants or hotels worth visiting. Remarkably, today’s tourist mecca is actually pretty close to what young Mayor Riley envisioned. But that isn’t how he got himself elected.
“What was your first big idea?” I asked him (two weeks before the shootings) in an interview at his City Hall office.
“The first big idea, and the reason that I ran for mayor,” he says, “was to have the African-American citizens (then 47% of the population) feel like part of the city.” A previous election had made it clear, Riley says, that in 1975 “either Charleston was going to elect a moderate bridge builder, or we would have a racially divisive election.”
A coalition of moderate whites, African-Americans, labor unions, and Catholics voted Riley in. His inaugural ceremony concluded with the civil rights anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” He pushed through the appointment of Charleston’s first black mayor pro tem, he put blacks on city boards and commissions, and he often voted with the six black city council members to find what he calls “community” with the six white members. Charleston was one of the first American cities to declare a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (South Carolina was the last state in the country to do so.) For these efforts, Mayor Riley—a dapper bantam rooster of a man—quickly earned the nickname “Little Black Joe” as well as hate mail and death threats.
The Rookie mayor also stirred the pot with an aggressive annexation program that targeted areas outside the city limits because he believed a shrinking core city surrounded by suburban growth constituted a “structural disaster.”
“The center city needs to have the fiscal capacity and the energy to provide quality services—parks, playgrounds, museums, universities, hospitals—to the rest of the area,” he says. “And you want as many people as possible with an overall stake in the region to be living in the city—voting, paying taxes, having a say-so.”
His economic redevelopment plan proposed sticking a large mixed-use hotel complex right in the heart of town. Old-line preservationists sued to block “Riley’s Folly.” But he persisted, and after almost a decade, the 440-room luxury hotel and mini mall (now called Belmond Charleston Place) finally opened to acclaim. Its unusual setback design and architectural nuance masked the building’s size, age, and effect on its historic surroundings, and today even the preservationists agree that Joe’s folly is the cornerstone of Charleston’s remarkable renaissance.
Priding himself on being Charleston’s chief urban designer, he also focused hard on grittier issues, especially crime. When his police chief committed suicide in the early 1980s, Riley chose a Texan named Reuben Greenberg—two master’s degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, a graduate of the FBI Academy, and (oh, yes) an African American and an Ashkenazi Jew to boot.
“I picked him because he was the best,” remembers Riley. “He was a good, solid cop. He knew it was serious business making the streets safe.” Also, he adds, “I knew how lucky I was for the best applicant to be African-American, because in terms of racial progress, Reuben Greenberg opened more doors than I could’ve done in decades. It gave people in the white community their first opportunity for a relationship with an African-American professional whose job was important to them.”
Greenberg was a huge political risk that paid off beyond anyone’s expectations. In 23 years as chief, he professionalized the department, reducing crime and winning national acclaim for his innovative tactics that focused on neighborhood policing. As a Los Angeles Times headline once put it: “A Black, Jewish, Roller-Skating Cop Brings a New Way to Fight Crime to the Old South.”
Riley and Greenberg (now deceased) weathered Hurricane Hugo together, and the now-72-year-old mayor still stirs at the memory. With the storm approaching, he recalls, he pulled all his staff into his office. “The room was full. I said, ‘Okay, it’s out there, and we should see this as an opportunity. In government, we tax people, we regulate them, we give parking tickets, and all of that. But this is a time when people’s lives depend on us. If we do the best job any city ever did in preparing for a natural disaster, then your pride in doing that will live with you forever. And something will happen to the city and its citizens’ relationship with government.'”
It worked. By some estimates, South Carolina lost as many as 35 lives to Hugo, but only 1 in Charleston. No looting, no price gouging, no lack of response from the federal government or the utilities, all of whom felt the pressure from this charismatic mayor who emerged as a bit of a folk hero on national TV.
“Disasters catch you where you are, and then they accelerate your natural condition from that place,” he says. “When the killer struck at Mother Emanuel, we didn’t have any alienated pockets waiting to lash out. The people’s instinct was that I was on their side, that the police chief was going to apprehend the killer. A city can never stop working on those relationships.”
The Riley years haven’t been all triumph. His 1994 gubernatorial bid failed in the primary. In 2000, he led a march to Columbia, hoping to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol (which finally happened). Recently, conservationists and downtown neighborhood groups have bitterly opposed his support of a cruise ship terminal at the city docks, as well as the extension of an interstate highway connector over a semirural island suburb.
Riley dismisses these critics as “elitists.” The highway extension, he says, is to provide traffic relief for “the real people who have to drive to work and can’t just ride a bicycle a few blocks to an office.” As for the cruise ships, he says, “Charleston is not some delicate little boutique resort. It is a port city. We’ve had docks forever. For Charleston to say, “Ooh, ooh, we don’t want cruise ships” is phony.”
Love him or not, in June it would’ve been hard to find anyone in Charleston—white or black, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican—who didn’t take comfort in knowing that their mayor was still on the job. But soon he will depart.
“It’s time,” he says. “The only way to be a mayor is with an intense, emotional, creative, physical, unrelenting energy. I am the equivalent of a marathon runner who has paced himself to finish with a kick. I will be working full tilt as long as I’m here.”
After that? He still has one piece of unfinished business to occupy him in civilian life: the funding and building of a $75 million International African American Museum. Envisioned to commemorate the passage of a huge number of slaves through Charleston and their subsequent contributions to life in the Lowcountry and America, it has so far fallen short of both widespread enthusiasm and its fund-raising targets. In many ways, it is a synthesis of Riley’s entire life’s work—urban design and development, social justice for people of African descent, promotion of tourism, and (of course) controversy.
Even some of Joe Riley’s biggest admirers view the museum as a stretch, a bridge too far in his alleged “monument building.” Still, history shows us that betting against Joe has so far been mostly a losing proposition.
John Huey is a resident of the Charleston area and a former Editor in Chief of Time Inc., the publisher of Southern Living.